Gold loses ground as clue to world political weather

Gold is no longer a reliable barometer of political weather. Whereas the slightest international commotion used to move its price needle, now it takes a major storm to boost gold on the London market.

Historically, when political crises occurred, people viewed gold as a stable store of value, and bid its price up. But this year that has not been so true.

It's not as if this has been a dull year. Britain and Argentina fought over the Falkland Islands. Iran and Iraq continued to chafe. Israel marched into Lebanon. Through all this, the price of gold fell.

Only when the Mexican government nationalized the country's banks, and asked to stretch out its massive US bank loans, did gold react in the expected manner. For example, on Aug. 20 its price jumped $28, from $357 to $385 per troy ounce.

The difference was that the Mexican issue puts a strain on banking institutions, whereas the other events were basically political in nature. Also, the fall in US interest rates renewed fears of inflation.

''Economic factors are always present,'' notes a State Department official. ''They seem dominant when all's quiet on the political front. It's when you superimpose economic repercussions on a very significant political event that you see big swings.''

After gold recovers from this latest scare, some gold-watchers argue, the price should continue its downward trend. If President Reagan and the Federal Reserve System continue their success in restraining price increases, investors will be less interested in gold as a hedge against inflation.

''But the essential character of gold has changed,'' observes Timothy Green, an international gold consultant and author of ''The New World of Gold.'' ''It used to be you would buy gold if you didn't want to lose money, because it was so stable. Now you buy gold to make money.''

Mr. Green contends the interest of the sophisticated investor, as distinct from users of gold - like jewelers, dentists, and electronics manufacturers - has become a more important variable in the gold equation. Traders, in theory, can make money on price volatility, up or down; some users will lose money if gold prices jump.

And what sophisticated investors watch is big economic events, as when President Jose Lopez Portillo announced gold could not be removed from Mexico without permission from the central bank.

The price, gold-watchers maintain, will still jump at scary economic events. They don't expect it to return to its double-digit price level of the early 1970 s.

''The question is, will you have the economic stability to depress the price of gold?'' asks Alden Anderson, president of Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank, the largest US supplier of gold for industrial purposes.

''Less-developed countries will put strain on their infrastructure as they industrialize. You'll see pressure on financial institutions. And inflation will continue to be a problem. All these put upward pressure on the price of gold.''

The consensus of 150 gold manufacturers, fabricators, and industrial traders surveyed at a conference sponsored by the Rhode Island bank Sept. 14 and 15 was that gold would cost $481 an ounce at the end of 1982. In 1983, they said the average price would rise to $512 (the range: $350 to $800).

Factors quieter than politics, but in the long run just as important, could buoy the price of gold during the 1980s, according to some experts: namely, a flat supply of newly mined gold and strong demand.

The amount of new gold coming on the market each year will probably increase at most 2 percent a year through this decade, Mr. Green estimates.

* South Africa, by far the largest gold producer, saw its gold profits plunge 33 percent last year. So it decreased production by 17.5 metric tons, to 657.6 tons. This trend has existed for over a decade: The country now mines 34 percent less than in 1970.

If the price keeps increasing more slowly than production costs, such cutbacks will continue. Even if the price rises considerably, however, South Africa might choose to mine lower-grade ore and retain high-quality gold for its reserves.

* The Soviet Union, thought to be the second-largest producer, will remain an unknown factor.

''The Soviet Union uses gold sales only when the economy is in deficit,'' Mr. Green notes. ''But the Russians are a fact of life in the gold market. It's as natural for them to sell gold as it is for the Saudis to sell oil.''

But the Soviet Union is not always price-sensitive. When gold soared to its record high of $850 an ounce in January 1980, the Soviet Union sold very little (an estimated 90 tons), because its budget was in surplus. But in 1981, it sold an estimated 283 tons to replenish its reserves, according to statistics from Consolidated Gold Fields Ltd., a mining company.

Continued trouble with satellite countries, such as Poland, could force the Soviet Union to step up sales, while additional revenue from its big natural gas pipeline may allow it to slack off.

* The United States and the International Monetary Fund discontinued their gold sales in 1980. Demand, however, will continue to be strong, although some industries will cut back their usage.

* Sales in the Middle East, the largest gold market, will remain high. In this volatile region gold is considered the best store of value.

While some industrial users, such as dentists and electronics manufacturers, are looking for replacements for gold, jewelrymakers will absorb at least 50 to 60 percent of all new gold that comes on market, an expert at the Department of Commerce says.

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