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Can Gold Get Out of Its Rut?

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It's been more than a year since the yellow metal's serious run ended, relegating it to bouncing around a range far short of its all-time highs. Could 2013 change the game?

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Gold was a quiet winner before its big sell-off this week. The yellow metal had worked its way up from around $1,560 per ounce back in July to nearly $1,800 in October. Just last week, it changed hands at $1,750.

But then came waves of selling, which drove the price below $1,690 by Thursday morning, still slightly above support levels.

But gold has gone nowhere in more than a year. It peaked near $1,900 in September 2011 and hasn't come within $100 of that since. It fell as low as $1,540 in May. Though it's still up 8% in 2012, this year's rally is looking pretty shaky.

And US stocks, which so many investors still hate, have wiped the floor with gold. Since last September 22, when stocks and gold began to decouple, the S&P 500 index has risen 25% while the SPDR Gold Shares ETF (NYSEARCA:GLD) has lost 3%.

So what's next for gold?

Back in March, I wrote a column called "End of the Gold Bull on the Horizon," in which I laid out a scenario where gold, well, just wouldn't shine:

"If the trend continues, this might suggest a scenario of slowly recovering global economies, gradual deleveraging, and little inflation in the real world-plus a firmer dollar. All in all, it would be a recipe for higher share prices but continued weakness for gold."

But some big things have happened since then. On September 6, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi indicated the ECB would start unlimited buying of European government bonds with maturities of one to three years. The program was aimed at backstopping the debt of fragile eurozone countries like Spain and Italy.

And the following week (what a coincidence!), Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke announced the US would embark on its own open-ended bond-buying plan, QE3. The Fed pledged to purchase an additional $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities each month until it saw "ongoing sustained improvement in the labor market."

So, the Fed will be adding half a trillion dollars per year until who knows when, and probably won't start raising short-term rates until 2014 at least. Most of that additional money will go into bank reserves, along with the $2 trillion the Fed already has added.

That could be a big problem when the economy recovers and those extra reserves start sloshing through the system.

That's likely several years away. But gold's ten-year bull market has anticipated that, and people own gold to protect themselves against that nightmare inflation scenario.

"Monetary policy around the world is prompting investors to seek alternatives to whatever currency they're in," said Doug Groh, co-manager of the Tocqueville Gold Fund (MUTF:TGLDX). "Developed countries are debasing their currencies, while emerging markets are buying gold."

By the end of 2012, central banks probably will have purchased more than last year's record 457 tons, paced by emerging market buyers like Russia, India, and Turkey. Brazil recently joined the party, making its biggest gold purchase since 2001.

Those two trends-extremely loose monetary policy and central bank purchases-should push gold prices higher, said Groh.

"I think in the next year we'll see the $2,000 mark, and the gold cycle [won't be] over until we see the $2,400 mark." That's the inflation-adjusted equivalent to the 1980 high of over $800 an ounce, he said.

His fund owns some physical gold, but mostly gold mining stocks. "Investors should have [gold exposure] through a number of vehicles," he told me.

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