Even as investors pushed US stock prices up Monday morning, the price of gold notched new record highs – a sign that the fear level surrounding the global economy remains elevated.
By the middle of the trading day on Wall Street, gold was up more than $20 to a price above $1,870 per ounce, after notching record prices at even higher levels Monday in both immediate-delivery and futures contracts.
In ordinary times gold isn't the hottest of investments. It doesn't earn any interest when stored in a bank vault or a brokerage account. And usually gold doesn't surge on the same day the Dow Jones Industrial Average opens with a rise of 1.6 percent.
But these aren't ordinary times. Instead, they're the best of times for gold, which has long been viewed as the ultimate haven from both inflation and economic crisis. Those are precisely the worries that have been on investors' minds in recent months, sending the yellow metal on an incredible rocket ride.
Consider the SPDR Gold Trust (ticker symbol GLD), an exchange traded fund designed to track gold's every price move. Over the past four years, GLD has risen about 180 percent, while the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index is down more than 20 percent.
A big spike upward has occurred just since July 1.
At these prices, gold itself isn't risk-free. Its price could fall sharply if the worries recede about a new recession, a financial crisis in Europe, or inflation fueled by lax monetary policies. At the same time, betting against the precious metal hasn't been a good move since 2008 ushered in an era of crisis and struggle for recovery.
Gold's new highs Monday came as investors focused on possible turmoil in European debt markets, and on the likelihood of a new round of monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve.
That same investor focus on the Fed helped send the Dow stock index up by 176 points to near the 11000 level. But by midday the Dow had given up much of that gain.
David Kelly, chief market strategist at J.P. Morgan Funds, sees a tug of war on Wall Street. "Investors this week will try to assess whether the outlook for the economy is quite as dire as the markets seem to suggest," he wrote in a note to clients Monday.
A recent decline in stock prices "and exceptionally low yields on Treasuries only seem to make sense if a very nasty recession materializes," Mr. Kelly said. In his view, incoming economic data so far suggest growth rather than recession.
At the same time, the risk of recession has risen in recent weeks, with many economists seeing a 25 percent or higher chance of a US downturn during the next year. That poses a risk to stock prices, and the situation in Europe heightens the uncertainty.
In a poll of US economists released Monday, forecasters said they believe that public-sector debts in Greece, Spain, Portgual, and Italy will need to be restructured at some point. Private-sector creditors will bear significant losses despite rescue efforts by other European Union nations and the European Central Bank, predicts the survey by the National Association for Business Economics.
The uncertainty has been great for gold, and not so good for stock markets or central bankers.