Since only monetary professionals and currency speculators know much about the feverish traffic in gold, it is hardly surprising that the general public does not realize that the astronomical rise in the metal's price has generated an unparalled windfall for the U.S. Treasury.
Gold has always had a mystical hold on people, but there has never been anything like the current craze, which has seen gold's value soar from $35 an ounce in 1971 to around $630 at the beginning of 1980, an increase of over 1,500 percent, most of it achieved in the last year.
All the hand-wringing about this, along with the predictions of dire consequences, has naturally inspired uneasiness and anxiety in the country, but actually Americans have less reason to be concerned over the phenomenon than the people of any other land, except possibly the few gold-producing countries.
President Carter recently tried to minimize the alarm, saying that he didn't "see any threat to the well-being of any American" because of the soaring gold prices. While he was on good ground, his assessment would have been more persuasive if he had spelled out how the bull market has enhanced our country's gold holdings by well over $100 billion at today's prices.
It's not difficult to understand how this happened. At the conclusion of World War II, America ended up with most of the world's gold, a total of 701.8 million ounces, the price of which was then pegged by the U.S. government at $35 an ounce, making our holding worth $24 billion.
In 1971, Richard Nixion detached the dollar from gold, leaving the price of the latter to float, subject to the marketplace. Meanwhile, the Treasury has been gradually reducing the U.S. stockpile, selling up to 1.5 million ounces a month at ever-rising prices.
The upshot is that the United States now has left 265 million ounces, which at $630 an ounce is valed at about $167 billion, or $143 billion more than our peak holding was worth when the dollar was convertible at $35 an aounce. Incidentally, the current U.S. gold reserves, although substantially reduced, still far exceed those of any other country in the free world.
Although gold has been traded for centuries, it didn't reach $100 an ounce until 1973, and it took another five years to climb to $200. Now, in a year's time, it is flirting with the $700 mark. Who knows how much higher it yet may go if the frenzy for it presists?
Nobody, including the experts, can explain the phenomenon. It's been blamed on everything from Iran to Afghanistan, from inflation to OPEC, from astrology to panic over the dollar. President Carter's view is that the dollar is now "well within the bounds of management." He sees it as "stable." d
Nevertheless, private money managers and some officials of Carter's own administration have warned that the soaring price of gold would undermine the dollar, but there is little in recent experience to support that concern. Instead of sinking or colapsing as gold shot out of sight, the dollar in the last year or so has held its own, or better, even against the stongest rival currencies, such as the German mark, the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen. It did still better against other major currencies.
When gold was selling for $215 an ounce late in 1978, the dollar was valued at 1.75 in German marks. Recently, although gold has already surpassed $600, the dollar, in marks, has been ranging from 1.70 to 1.80. Fourteen months ago, the dollar would buy 178 yen, as against 240 in December 1979. Over the same period, the dollar, in terms of the Swiss franc, went from 1.47 to 1.59. Thus, in the face of the unprecedented rise of gold, the dollar shown stability, dispite its doubters.
Much of that doubt centers on the fear that the dollar-bloated oil giants of the Persian Gulf might switch to some other currency. The best rebuttal come from Khaled Abu Su'ud, the top financial adviser to the government of Kuwait, which has about $20 billion (roughly 65 percent) of its long-term investments in the United States.
The Kuwaiti offical says there won't be any switching because "the dollar is the best currency you can invest in." And he adds: "The American economy is strong. It has plentiful natural resources. Your financial markets offer great flexibility."
Abu Su'ud, whose financial acumen is widely respected in the Persian Gulf region, also has some thoughts about gold: don't buy it. And he adds, "I don't care what the price is today. Gold is still a bad investment. Gold has never been a good long-term investment."
A final warning comes from Paul Volcker, chairman of the federal Reserve Board, who says the gold rush has "some of the characteristics of a classic boom-and-bust cycle."