During the last several weeks, the Dow Jones hit a 34-month low. The dollar fell to a record low against the German mark and the Swiss franc. At the same time, the price of gold futures contracts advanced to their highest level in three years on the Commodity Exchange Inc. in New York. The spot price of gold in London rose 74 percent above its August 1976 low of $103.
It is clear from these counter trends --in the near future -- that America, and indeed the whole world, is experiencing the second gold rush of the decade.
Just as in the first gold rush that preceded the Jan. 1, 1975 relegalization of bullion holdings by American citizens, rash predictions of coming record prices abound.
Goldbug James Dines, who foresaw gold at $400 an ounce in 1975 (it fell from about $180 to $140), last November again predicted -- without specifying a date -- the precious metal would soar to between $250 and $400 an ounce. Yet, perhaps because many goldbugs went overboard in those halcyon days before 1975, analysts now seem more cautious. They talks about gold at $200, or even $225, an ounce in 1978. Their optimism is based on the better political situation in the Mideast and the worse economic situation at home. Almost no one seems to believe gold will fall below $145.
Just as Americans rushed out to buy millions of gold coins in 1974-75, they are doing so now. Most of 1977 was a slow year, but trading picked up noticeably in the final months. In January, sales of South African Krugerrands worldwide amounted to 669.000 Troy ounces, compared with 203,000 ounces a year before. American sales are not broken out separately, but Krugerrands account for about 75 percent of the billion coins bought here ounces.
Yet, there are significant differences in the first and second gold rushes. Investors and investments have becomed more sophisticated. The precious metal, as a result, has gained more respectability.
At the beginning of the 1970s, gold --except in the form of jewelry and numismatic coins -- was virtually an unknown quantity to most Americans. Its once traditional role as the backing for paper currency and as the metal Frenchmen supposedly hid under their mattresses gave it a mystical or mythical quality. By declaring possession of billion legal again, the U.S. government sought to demonetize gold, to make its citizens think of it like any other commodity, such as soybeans or wheat. The effort has been largely, but not entirely successful.
Americans who bought during the first gold rush often had middle European backgrounds and as such were familiar with the purchase of gold as a hedge against the ravages of inflation. Now, according to Glen Kirsh of Deak & Co., more native Americans are venturing into gold.
Back in 1974-75 street corner shops sold small gold wafers, bars and coins. These all disappeared with the drop in gold prices; some also disappeared with their customers' money. Many banks and brokers stopped selling gold in this form because the profit margin was low and security costs high. (Merrill Lynch denied the canard it had ceased selling Krugerrands because of political pressure from anti-South Africa groups.)
Today relatively little bar gold is sold over the counter and coins relargely the business of expert dealers. On a worldwide basis, coins accounted for 5.2 million ounces, or about 45 percent of the 11.5 million ounces sold for investment purposes in 1977, according to J. Aron's precious metals research department.
The influx of foreign coins into this country, combined with past sales of gold from the U.S. Treasury to central banks abroad (no new sales are on the horizon), has prompted Rep. Steven Symms (R-Idaho) to draft a bill authorizing the minting of official U.S. gold medallions. The idea, which has popular support but not that of the Treasury, is to allow small American investors a chance to buy a part of Uncle Sam's reserves.
Sales of gold jewelry in the United States may well rise 10 percent this year, according to Consolidated Gold Fields. Although Americans do not traditionally think of jewelry as a form of investment, it is so regarded in other countries. In the first 10 months of 1977 the developed countries bought 16.5 million ounces of gold jewelry. At the same time 13.3 million ounces went to the lesser developed countries. Although the United States has the largest official gold reserves in the world, France has the record for privately held gold, 200 million ounces or twice as much American citizens hold. India, where gold is often hoarded as bracelets or other body ornaments, has 120 million ounces, worth $21 million today, in private hands.
There is also much gold going into private Mideastern hands, despite the central banks' disinclination to increase their stocks inordinately or to demand oil payments in gold. Timothy green, a consultant to International Gold Corp., believes the Arab and Moslem countries now absorb one third of all the new gold coming onto the market. He estimates some 450 tons will be shipped from Europe to the Mideast this year. The biggest buyer is Saudi Arabia, which last year imported 80 tons, worth $320 million. Iran bought 70 tons.
Gold in the form of mining shares enjoys less popularity these days because, as Houston broker Douglas Johnston told Deaknews, it is a widely held perception, whether true or not, that South Africa's mines are subject to high risks as a result of the tense political situation.
John Crowley of James Sinclair & Co., on the other hand, is bullish on both South African and North American gold shares.He calls Free State Geduld, Randfonstein and Western Holdings the star performers. Deposit certificates for gold sored in Zurich vaults have not sold well because they are not negotiable.
The most significant difference between the first and second gold rushes is the development of trading on the commodity exchanges. In January 1975, when U.S. gold trading started, volume on the exchanges totaled 5.3 million ounces. In January 1978 it amounted to 23 million ounces alone on the New York's Comex. Comex and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's International Monetary Market now constitute the largest gold traders in the world.
According to Dr. Henry Jarecki, chairman of Mocatta Metals Corp., a major U.S. bullion dealer in New York, it was only after gold recovered from its August 1976 low that American investors came to think of owning gold. An increasing number of analysts are now recommending that gold be routinely made a part of American portfolios. (James Sinclair & Co. goes so far as to counsel clients to put up to 20 percent of their assets in bullion coins.)
Buying gold contracts on margin for future delivery is the cheapest and easiest way to do it. Bullion is sold in convenient 100-ounce bars for only $1,000 down. No weighing or assaying is required to resell as when the owner takes physical possession.
Normally the speculator buying potatoes or soybeans on the exchange does not intend to take delivery, but gold may have shown once again it still remains a slightly different commodity. A strange phenomenon occurred late last year when it became apparent that investors were going to take physical possession of a tremendous amount of gold. Whether this resulted from a technical fluke when far more gold was tendered than the longs (those holding futures contracts permitting them to buy gold) could afford, or whether Americans, who got into the market in a big way last fall, intended to take possession, Jarecki could not say.
But the result was the largest delivery in the history of the futures market, 1.25 million ounces with a total value of almost $200 million. In order to cover these deliveries, warehouses had imported 1.8 million ounces (60 tons). This means the United States now has the world's largest visible above-ground supply of tradeable gold apart from Ft. Knox's buried treasure. These last months, Jarecki said, have "not only spelled a marked change in the structure of the world's gold market but have spoiled the little boy's game forever. Gold is no longer child's play."
Still to come is a further refinement of the game, this one definitely not for children: options. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has received applications from the American Commodity Exchange, a new branch of the Amex, to set up a spot market in gold and silver bullion. This move was taken so ACE will be eligible to trade domestic commodity options on the physical bullion, exchange officials have said. (London options sales may be suspended in the United States later this spring if a CFTC proposal is approved. They took the action following widespread publicity about fraud schemes and the shutdown of the controversial, Boston-based Lloyd, Carr & Co.) Comex and the New York Mercantile Exchange have applied for permission to set up options trading on bullion commodity futures.
The government's intention of turning gold into just another commodity would seem on its way to achievement by this move. However, there are others who would do just the opposite. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R.-Ariz.) has linked freedom to the gold standard. The U.S., Goldwater told a November Conference for Monetary Reform, "can easily drown in a flood of unsound paper currency."
Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) recently got a gold clause bill through the Senate. This lifted the prohibition against writing contracts in gold rather than dollars or some other paper currency. Helms' staff aide, Howard Segermark, said the business world, including Japanese exporters and international grain companies and shippers, have expressed interest. However, substantial legal problems remain.
Meanwhile, if you really want to make a contract in gold, Howard J. Ruff of San Francisco is willing to accommodate private lenders. The author of an economic advisory letter, Ruff explained, "Its primary value is symbolic. But who knows, it might be a precursor to bringing back the gold standard."