Gold has been one of the shiniest of investments in the past year. Up more than 30 percent, the precious metal reached a record $1,565.60 an ounce. Then last week, gold prices tumbled 6 percent, before stabilizing around $1,500 an ounce.
So is it time to buy gold before it starts another climb? That depends on what your outlook is.
If you believe that America's easy money policy will lead inevitably to high inflation – and that the Federal Reserve can do nothing to control it – then gold is a good hedge against inflation. If you think that Congress and the White House won't control spending and that US debt will continue to spiral out of control, then gold is a good way to protect against long-term decline in the value of the dollar.
"Investors are concerned about the long-term purchasing power of the US dollar," says Axel Merk, president of Merk Investments, which owns some gold and manages $650 million from Palo Alto, Calif. "The fear is the US budget is not on a sustainable path and our policymakers are not taking it seriously enough."
Of course, too much pessimism can create its own market bubbles. Some analysts believe gold itself has become overvalued, driven by too much fear. Last week's sell-off could be evidence that many investors agree. Is it time to move into more optimistic investments, such as stocks or even other precious metals?
The fundamentals "justify the high price of gold," wrote Scott Anderson, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, in a report in late April before the latest decline. The headline to his research: "Gold not in bubble territory … yet." Although inflation is not a major economic worry yet, Mr. Anderson thinks it's "creeping higher and higher." In addition, he's concerned that reducing the soaring US government debt and deficit may entail "significant sacrifices that many Americans may be loath to endure."
Although many mainstream economists and investment professionals have long been doubtful about gold as an investment, the 2-1/2 year rise in gold prices, combined with concerns about inflation, are prompting some nontraditional buyers to invest. For example, John Paulson, a hedge fund manager who made billions in the collapse of the financial markets, decided to buy gold last year, writes Gregory Zuckerman, author of "The Greatest Trade Ever," a description of Mr. Paulson's winning strategy during the housing crisis.
Paulson has decided his next moneymaking enterprise is to bet against the US dollar, according to Mr. Zuckerman's book. Paulson calculated the supply of dollars had expanded by 120 percent over several months following efforts to prevent an economic depression, a move that he argues will lead to massive inflation and makes gold's prospects exciting.
Some mutual funds are also starting to add gold to their investments. And so are individual investors, especially as it has become easier to buy gold-related products with new financial products. Exchange traded funds (ETFs), for example, are traded on the exchanges but buy gold bars and let investors own a share without worrying about vaults and insurance.
Research shows that a portfolio with 5 to 15 percent invested in precious metals can reduce risk, says Fred Jheon, managing director of US product and business development at ETF Securities in New York, which offers ETFs and related products in precious metals, currencies, and commodities. Investors "are now starting to realize that adding an element of precious metals into their portfolios helps to diversify their portfolios."
However, some economists are not so certain gold is the best investment – especially at current prices.
"Gold is the investment for people who have lost hope in everything else and are not thinking about what they are investing in," says Robert Brusca of Fact & Opinion Economics in New York. He argues that if the Federal Reserve sees inflation picking up, it will raise interest rates. "Higher interest rates are like antimatter for gold," he says, since gold pays no interest.
Mr. Brusca is also optimistic that Congress will act to start to reduce the deficits in the future. "The odds are they will get something done," he says. "The purchase of gold is in some sense a play against the financial probity of the United States."
If you share that more hopeful outlook but still want to invest in precious metals, consider platinum or palladium, which are poised to take off if the world economy strengthens. Both metals have various industrial uses, roughly half the world's supply is used by the auto industry. So if consumers buy more cars, prices are likely to go up.
"Palladium [and] platinum are for optimists," says Erica Rannestad, commodity analyst for CPM Group, an independent commodities research, consulting firm, and investment banking company based in New York. The metals took a bit of a beating recently because of the aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, which is disrupting global supply chains and causing automakers to slow production. Unlike gold investors, palladium and platinum "investors are buying more for [the metals'] supply-demand fundamentals."
ETFs that specialize in these traditionally small markets have also helped investors to pour money into these metals.
For fence-sitters, unsure which way the global economy is headed, silver plays a hybrid role: part industrial metal, part inflation hedge. So far, it has performed even better than gold. Trading at less than $10 an ounce as late as 2008, it nearly touched $50 in intraday trading in April. But it's also more volatile than gold, says Mr. Jheon. Last week, it lost a quarter of its value, before stabilizing around $37 an ounce.
When adjusted for inflation, gold is still not at its record high value, which would be $1,945 per ounce in today's dollars, a level set in January 1980. After that it fell to as low as $437 an ounce by 2005, also in today's dollars.
Investors need to be aware gold can be volatile also, Merk warns. "The correction in gold can be rather severe."
– Monitor intern Geoff Johnson contributed to this report.