The new world of peace and glasnost, it would seem, is an unfriendly place for gold. The superpowers are scrapping missiles, throwing open frontiers and proclaiming an era of cooperation. At the same time, people are unloading the metal that throughout history has functioned as a "safe haven" investment, unproductive during stable times but magically able to preserve and even increase its value amid chaos and war.
Since the start of the year, these sales have put gold on a dizzying slide. Yesterday, it was trading at around $350 a troy ounce, up a bit from last week's levels but still dismally low. It has reached the point that half of South Africa's gold is being mined at a loss. The metal's all-time high of $850 a decade ago now seems a distant glimmer.
Yet many people who study the mysterious workings of the world's gold markets say the relaxation of East-West tensions has had little if anything to do with the fall. The causes seem to be traditional ones, they say: a series of jumbo sales from the Middle East, or perhaps lowered fear of inflation.
Lowered political and military tensions, in fact, could send the price of gold up, they say.
Failing that, it could bring it down.
Such is the certainty of expert advice on which investors make their decisions in the world of gold.
In one sense, gold is just another commodity, like corn or iron ore, subject to speculative diversions before reaching the final consumer. About 1,650 metric tons were produced in the Western world in 1989; another 340 tons were put on world markets by China, the Soviet Union and North Korea. Much of the new production went for "industrial" use in jewelry, electronics and, to the tune of 50 tons, the mouths of dental patients.
Yet, gold maintains an attraction to people that defies conventional explanation. Since antiquity, people have seemed genetically disposed to treat it as magical. Indian villagers wear gold chains and bracelets, Hong Kong matrons buy gold coins, American businessmen buy certificates that give them ownership of gold stored in vaults.
Reflecting the logic of the ages, one California businessman who has been amassing a personal stock for close to 20 years, said: "Governments have come and gone. Monetary systems have come and gone. And gold has remained."
Despite the advent of electronic money and global financial markets, banks and governments also treat gold with deep respect. With bullion bricks stacked high in underground vaults, it remains an important part of the financial reserves of many countries. Economists endlessly debate gold's actual and ideal role in world finance. Some see its price fluctuations as harbingers of inflation. A few contend that getting the world back onto a gold standard is the key to greater prosperity in general.
You won't get rich investing in gold, its fans, and dealers, generally say -- especially when prices seem to be on the decline. What you will get is insurance against bad times. If crisis hits and your stocks, cash and real estate go bad, your gold will rocket ahead, the logic goes, offsetting your losses. "It is something to keep in the back of the closet, somewhere, just in case something should happen," said David Montgomery, manager of the Washington office of Deak International, a major dealer in foreign currency and precious metals.
As proof of its powers as a hedge against inflation, the following story is often cited: In 1930, gold was selling for about $30 an ounce and that would buy a quality business suit. Today, it's trading at $350 and, magically, that is the cost of the suit today.
But why is the price going down now?
About the only clear explanation is three massive sell-offs that have hit the world market this year. On March 26, the London market was deluged with sell orders, which the rumor mill quickly linked to Saudi Arabia. A bank there was said to have sold close to 50 tons that day, driving the price down by about $23, the biggest daily drop in years.
Two more big binges, again attributed to Saudi Arabia, occurred in May and earlier this month, the final one apparently prompting central banks to begin buying gold to support the value of their own stocks of the metal. Joseph Battaglia, chairman of the Gold and Silver Financial Group of Encino, Calif., said officials seem to want it to stay between $340 and $420. "We see evidence of central bank intervention at both of those extremes," he said.
Analysts noted that during one Saudi sale, the pound sterling rose. Some quickly jumped to conclude that with oil income down, the Saudis were selling gold to pay for large imports of arms from Britain. Another sharp-eyed trader noted that the sale took place just before the onset of the Islamic holy period Ramadan, when business dealings are muted.
But what of Eastern Europe?
News that shooting has broken out in some new corner of the world almost invariably pushes gold prices up, as people who fear that Armageddon is a bit closer rush to supply themselves with metal. Surely, the world stepping back from war, as it seems to have done in Europe, would have some depressing effect on the price of gold, one might conclude.
But gold's investors note that, however euphoric people may be over events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the show is not over. The Eastern countries' relations with the West may be better than ever, but their internal politics and economies remain unsettled, particularly in the Soviet Union.
Thus, when Mikhail Gorbachev faced off with the secessionist government in Lithuania, many gold analysts predicted good times for their commodity. "As each ethnic group or area wants to break out of the Russian hold, there are security concerns for the rest of the world," said Bette Raptopoulos, senior metals analyst for Prudential Bache Securities Inc.
Add to this the view of many gold analysts that inflation is equally if not more important than war in driving its price up. It reached its $850 peak in 1980 not because of fear of an impending apocalypse, most analysts say, but because of the steep inflation of the late 1970s that set off a speculative frenzy. Today, war may be further away, but inflation? Few people would gamble so.
How the Soviets, one of the world's largest producers, will play the gold markets also remains uncertain. Some analysts think the current price downturn has been accelerated a bit by extra Soviet sales to bolster their hard currency reserves and finance much-needed imports. One line of speculation has it that the Saudis were somehow acting on behalf of the Soviets -- never mind that the two are not known to be terribly close.
Conversely, the experts say, the Soviets could cut their supplies to the world market, holding out newly produced gold to back the ruble and turn it into a convertible currency or to back bonds that would then be sold for foreign currency. Either way, the Soviet supply to world gold markets would decline and prices would be nudged upward.
That's what the gold bugs say, anyway.