The spectacular rise in gold, now hovering in record territory, has been fostered by three very different conceptions: gold as a trader's choice, gold as a theoretical proof and gold as a historical metaphor.
For the believers in metaphor the ascent of the metal is an augury for the decline of the west; for the theoreticians it is the only secure defense against inflation; for the traders it is a momentum purchase not to be missed. All three groups are buying gold and as yet, none have been proven wrong.
If we translate these speculations into currency terms the traders promise a long position with better returns than any other investment. The theoreticians predict a global currency system ravaged by government inflation and a revolving cast of devalued national scripts. And the third intimates the ultimate end of the dollar as the world reserve currency presumably replaced by the yuan. All three foresee a continued fall in the value of the dollar.
The economic logic of the three groups of gold supporters is currently aligned and all are profiting from the rise in prices. But it would be remarkable if three such disparate scenarios remained in tune for long.
The east may indeed replace the west as the dominant global economic center but it will not do so in time for the 'metaphorical Spenglerians' (so named for Oswald Spengler who published The Decline of the West in 1918) to take profit on their investment. Even if true the western decline will be slow and erratic and these position takers will miss their profit levels waiting for the final collapse.
For the theoreticians or monetarists, the second group of 'gold bugs', inflation will suddenly spring out of the ground like the product of so many governmental dragons' teeth. It is inevitable, increase the money supply and inflation follows.
However, with prices in decline in many industrial economies and unemployment at a new and much higher normal, it is hard to see firms extracting higher prices from consumers when cheaper international goods are so readily available. Whatever the theoretical prospect for inflation the current empirical evidence points the other way, toward deflation.
For the third group, the traders, theory and metaphor are irrelevent. The global financial system is under a soothing blanket of liquidity. The central bankers who have warmed the world with cash and who are now (we assume) very aware of the danger of prolonged cheap credit will (we assume), sooner or later, begin to draw back the protecting cover of liquidity. But the reabsorption of liquidity by the banks is wholly conditional on economic recovery. The most forthright of the world's central bankers, Ben Bernanke of the American Federal Reserve has stated this over and over; there is no reason to doubt his word.
The gold buyers in this group believe the Chairman. Until the central bank begins to tighten credit, excess cash and the pursuit of trading profit determines the price of gold. It does not matter that the bankers say they will tighten credit when the proper time comes, what matters is action. Until the banks actually begin to raise rates and subtract liquidity, for them, gold is a solid buy.
Of the three scenarios the first, the 'Spenglerian' is the most impervious to evidence. It exists apart from factual verification or to put it another way, it is always possible to find evidence that the west is declining. It is just a matter of choosing the right statistics. In practical and emotional terms this group will always be long gold, though it is in unsettled times like ours that they do the most buying.
For the monetarists results depend largely on logic and economic equations. If so much liquidity is loosed on financial markets it must over time (duration unspecified) produce inflation. It is a simple monetary equation, a rising pile of cash chasing a much more slowly rising pile of goods and assets. Over time inflation is the end product. But inflation is not solely the product of a balanced equation between cash and goods. Firms must be able to raise prices and consumers must be able to pay those higher prices and those last factors are now very much absent.
Yet economic stagnation and inflation are not mutually exclusive. If returning American economic growth is not sufficient to reduce unemployment what are the chances that the Fed will commence raising rates regardless of the price index? And if on the other side of the world East Asian economic growth takes off and forces commodity and goods prices higher those prices will shortly be felt in the United States. Irrespective of what the US economy is doing the world's markets can export inflation to the US.
What would prevent the price of oil from climbing as it did last summer if the Chinese, Indian and Brazilian economies accelerate and that third of the world creates its own economic cycle? Will the US be dragged by East Asia into robust recovery? Unknown. But the effect on the overextended American consumer and economy of $100 oil is not unfathomable. There is no certainty that one third of the world economy will be dynamic enough to force prices higher in the US. But if inflation comes in the US it will probably arrive from overseas and US domestic liquidity will have done little to create it.
For the Fed to raise rates and by default defend the dollar US economic growth will have to be robust enough to begin to take down the unemployment rate. This is an entirely unsure prospect.
US consumers are tapped there has been no sign in retails sales or consumer credit that the drivers of US growth have resumed their seats behind the wheel. The effect of a weak dollar on US exports may be pronounced. Shipments may increase enough to substantially reduce the trade deficit. But the US is not an export driven economy nor is its work force widely engaged in manufacturing. Exports may grow appreciably without it having any noticeable effect on American unemployment. Exports might look excellent to economists and free traders without US workers feeling any better or increasing their spending.
Of the three gold buying groups, the monetarists and the traders are most susceptible to Fed policy changes. But the traders are likely to act first. For them the earliest indication of a genuine change in Fed policy will be enough to abandon their long gold positions for profit. Monetarists are likely to wait until they are sure the Fed will act and then wait again until there is proof that the Fed has acted in time to prevent inflation.
And there we have the pernicious effect on the dollar. Until the Federal Reserve reestablishes the link between economic growth and interest rates the logic of the gold buyers is inescapable. Gold is not predicting a decline in the dollar or the inevitable advent of inflation but it is promising that without a vigilant Fed the first will continue and the second creep ever closer.