Gold has had an amazing recent run. From December 1999 to March 2012 the U.S. dollar price of gold rose more than 15.4% per annum, the U.S. Consumer Price Index increased by 2.5% per annum, while U.S. stock and bond markets registered annual gains of 1.5% and 6.4%, respectively. It is not surprising then that there is so much disagreement about gold’s future and it is this "Golden Dilemma" that a new paper by Erb and Harvey focuses on, analyzing at least six somewhat different arguments that have been advanced for owning gold:
- gold provides an inflation hedge;
- gold serves as a currency hedge;
- gold is an attractive alternative to assets with low real returns;
- gold a safe haven in times of stress;
- gold should be held because we are returning to a de facto world gold standard;
- and gold is “underowned”.
The debate over the prospects for gold resembles in some sense the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. Different perspectives, different models, lead to different insights. Depending upon which rationale, or combination of rationales, one embraces, gold is either very expensive or attractive.
However, one important conclusion is that their analysis shows that the price of gold is very sensitive to even a remote possibility of another Weimar Republic-like inflation episode. So while there is disagreement over gold as an inflation-hedge, it is critically a levered option on hyperinflation as even extraordinarily small probabilities of 'extreme' inflation will have a large impact on the possible future price of gold.