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End of a golden age for gold?

business Updated: Apr 11, 2013 21:37 IST
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Below the streets of Lower Manhattan, in the vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the world's largest trove of gold - half a million bars - has lost about $75 billion of its value. At the US Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, the damage totals $50 billion.

And in Pocatello, Idaho, the tiny golden treasure of Jon Norstog has dwindled, too. A $29,000 investment Norstog made in 2011 is now worth $17,000 - 42% lost.

"I thought if worst came to worst, I would still have something that was worth something," Norstog, 67, recalled of his golden foray.

A mere two years after its price raced to a phenomenal high, gold has turned into a very bad investment, losing 17% value since late 2011. Wednesday was another bad day: the price of bullion dropped by $28 to $1,558 an ounce (Rs 29,842 per 10 grams).

It is a remarkable turnabout for an investment long regarded as one of the safest. The decline has been so swift that some Wall Street analysts are declaring the end of a golden age of gold. The last time the metal went through a patch like this, in the 1980s, its price took 30 years to recover.

What has gone wrong? The answer, in part, lies in what went right.

Gold gained an astonishing 650% from August 1999 to August 2011 as the world economy teetered on the brink. Now, the worst is seen as having passed - and gold is taking a beating.

Granted, gold has gone through booms and busts before. And that anyone who bought gold in 1999 and held on has done far better than the average stock market investor. Even after the recent decline, gold is still up 515% from 1999.

But the metal is not without its share of backers. Peter Schiff, the chief executive of investment firm Euro Pacific Capital, said he still expected gold to hit $5,000 an ounce within a few years. "People believe the US economy is recovering. It's not," Schiff said.

Even Jon Norstog has not lost his affection for the metal. He had put his money in a gold fund focussed on mining company stocks.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would have just bought the gold," Norstog said. "At least that way I could have run my fingers through the glittering coins."

For a generation of investors, the golden decade had created the illusion that the metal would keep rising forever. That aura has been damaged, perhaps forever.