Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gold in National Geographic

National Geographic Magazine's January 2009 issue has an article about gold:


While investors flock to new gold-backed funds, jewelry still accounts for two-thirds of the demand, generating a record $53.5 billion in worldwide sales in 2007. For all of its allure, gold's human and environmental toll has never been so steep. Part of the challenge, as well as the fascination, is that there is so little of it. In all of history, only 161,000 tons of gold have been mined, barely enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools. More than half of that has been extracted in the past 50 years. Now the world's richest deposits are fast being depleted, and new discoveries are rare.

I cannot understand why people and central banks are willing to pay so much for gold. It has less utility than platinum and silver. Most items that rely primarily on scarcity to attract consumers eventually lose demand and their high value. With gold, however, consumers can't seem to get enough. At least gold's value is not artificially inflated, as with diamonds (See DeBeers litigation). Still, I cannot think of another product whose attraction has such little correlation with its utility.

With platinum and gold selling at similar prices, I would probably go for the platinum. For now, my only precious metal is silver, which I own through a silver trust ETF (SLV).

Update: the print edition of the National Geographic has two charts on page 42 and 43 that are worth a look. One is called, "What it's worth," and the other is called "How it's used." If readers find a link to the charts, please let me know or please post a comment.

Bonus Round: Steve Forbes on gold.

Bonus Round 2: from the Italian Job, about gold:
it "is our only refuge."

Update on 12/23/08: here is a comment I posted on seekingalpha.com, in response to other comments:

I appreciate all of your comments, but the only one that makes sense to me is Albert Ling's. He says that expensive products are expensive precisely because of their lack of utility. Although he doesn't expand on his hypothesis, he makes sense. The low utility of certain products, including gold, reveals an important trait--namely, that their buyer can afford useless objects, confirming the buyer's high disposable income, and therefore status.

I don't disagree with the ultimate end of the gold bugs, which is to establish a hard currency. Once most central banks moved away from gold and into fiat currency, gold no longer qualified as an agreed-upon unit of currency. Only if we return to the days of hard currency will gold have value because of its utility in determining currency. Until that day, its value seems to be linked to consumer demand and perception rather than utility.

Other people argued that almost no other products have prices relating to their inherent value, citing beachfront property; Mona Lisa; and Apple stock. Those examples are somewhat inapt.

1. Beachfront property has value because it is something that is necessary--shelter. It can also be used every day. Gold is not necessary, while shelter is required for most people.

2. The Mona Lisa has value because it is a unique historical artifact. Unique historical items tend to be valuable, despite their lack of utility, because history has value to most human beings. Therefore, I have no logical hangup with a historical painting connected to Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance having value. The Mona Lisa's value is inherent in its existence, which links it to a specific time period that will be studied as long as human beings exist.

Other paintings, however, especially so-called modern art, may have no value in the future. I would never buy a MoMa painting.

3. Apple stock is a harder one to analyze. It has no utility at first glance, because it does not pay dividends. (Many value investors avoid non-dividend paying stocks, because they don't see any definite return.) Yet, Apple stock has utility because it is easily traded, like currency, for other things, which do have utility. Gold is not easily traded for cash all over the United States. Apple stock, on the other hand, once liquidated, will buy a farmer in a rural area as well as a NY banker in a big city immediate utility. Therefore, its utility lies in its quick, convenient conversion into a unit that confers utility.

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