The currency of kings and the currency of fear, gold symbolizes both security and power. Its glittering prize has sent explorers and prospectors around the globe in search of it. As an investment, gold is volatile, may remain stagnant in price for decades and then suddenly prove to be inordinately valuable during periods of market panic. Shakespeare cautioned, “All that glitters is not gold,” but is gold’s rare beauty a sound financial investment?
To the critics, minerals are pure speculation, don’t produce income, are subject to higher taxes on gains, and the hope for big upswings in price require long-holding periods. Billionaire Warren Buffett is not a fan of gold; eminently quotable, Buffett condemns gold for its lack of productivity, noting that even a hypothetical purchase of “all the world’s gold stock—170,000 metric tons,” roughly a 68 foot cube—would be a poor investment next to what else you might do with that purchasing power:
For that we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money. A century from now the 400 million acres of farmland will have produced staggering amounts of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops – and will continue to produce that valuable bounty, whatever the currency may be. Exxon Mobil will probably have delivered trillions of dollars in dividends to its owners and will also hold assets worth many more trillions (and, remember, you get 16 Exxons). The 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.
While it’s difficult to argue with Buffett’s predictions given his track record, there have certainly been times over the past fifty years when gold’s solidity felt emotionally comforting during periods of turbulence in the stock market. To the contrarians, gold offers a solid asset, less volatile than cash, a hedge against inflation, and tends to increase in value in dark economic climates. The price of gold rose a dramatic 131 percent from 2007-2011 to $1,921 an ounce while the stock market recovered at a much slower pace. Perhaps gold should remain a small, even very small percentage of your overall portfolio but gold’s appeal isn’t going away. Unpredictable but tangible, gold has staying power that is more than its beauty.
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