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Gold Bugs, Stop Laughing!

Zero rates are starting to set around investors like concrete...

Owning gold should make financial crises fun. Which alongside silver, it has surely done to date, 20% and 50% plunges aside.

But if you already own physical bullion - or you're about to consider it - spare a thought for everyone else. Because pointing and laughing at the misfortune of others is an ugly habit. It only makes us "gold bugs" more boring at parties as well. A little sympathy, and a stab at empathy too, could go a long way to redeeming us socially. And it would be far better than taking a pratfall of our own, you'll agree.

Crowing about being so right, so early is understandable, of course. Hitting a 22-year low in July 1999, the price of investment gold has since risen sharply - pretty much year after year - against the Euro, Yen and Sterling, as well as every other currency you can name.

Silver bullion has done better still over the last decade - that decade straddling both the Tech Stock Crash and its offspring, the Cheap-Money Bubble, sired by meek academics wielding godlike powers at the big central banks. The permanent emergency following the inevitable blow-up has only accelerated gold's outperformance against pretty much every other financial asset you can name, too.

 

Number of mutual
funds beating gold
over 10 years
to end-2011
over 5 years
to end-2011
in France 1 1
in Germany 0 0
in Italy 0 0
in Japan 4 1
in the UK 3 0
in the US 15 1
Source: BullionVault via LBMA, BoE, MorningStar. Includes upfront & ongoing fees.

 

In most cases, this acceleration of dumb bullion's Schadenfreude has come thanks to its own faster gains, plus the flagging performance of the finest investment minds.

But not in Japan. There, in the land of the zero interest rate, retained savings have grown so used to earning nothing - nothing! - in return for credit or capital risk, that even gold and silver slowed their rate of gain during the last half-decade of permanent emergency.

Japanese Gold vs. Yen

Since the start of 2007, gold has returned just 8.8% per year to Japanese buyers (compound annual growth rate, after costs). Silver slowed more dramatically still, halving its 10-year CAGR to just 6.1% per year. And all because, of course, the Yen has rallied during this crisis so far.

How come? Japan was long into depression when this "global crisis" began, you'll recall. Its own domestic bubble exploded in 1989, dragging GDP, wages and even shop prices into deflation since. Japan thus got the absurdist joy of zero interest rates almost a decade ahead of everyone else, helping knock the all-too-powerful Yen down on the currency market in 2000-2008 (see above) but still failing to induce the magic reflation.

Come the big bang of late 2008, and the Yen reversed a huge chunk of its fall, as hedge funds (and others) suckered into selling it short by the Bank of Japan's zero-rate gambit realized that every other central bank was about to try the same gag. Gold plunged in Yen, short term, and silver fell harder again. Net-net, both metals have offered the best store of value (barring just two mutual funds) for Japan's household investors. But they've both slowed their rate of return to what, compared to the 20%-or-so annual gains for Dollar, Sterling or Euro investors, looks like a crawl.

Depressed returns to investment are only to be expected in a depression, of course, not least from lumps of metal which never promised a yield in the first place. But even the best stores of wealth - meaning gold and silver since 2002 and especially 2007, in Japan just as much as in the US and Europe - might be vulnerable. Zero growth, and the zero rates through which central banks hope to undo it, are starting to set around investors like concrete.

 

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