Debunking the Gold Bubble Myth
by Eric Sprott and Andrew Morris
Gold’s continuous ten-year rise hasn’t sheltered it from controversy. Despite producing consistent returns in virtually all currencies year after year, some market pundits still question its validity as an asset class. It’s true that gold doesn’t pay any interest, and it’s also true that much of the gold produced throughout history still exists in some form today. But these characteristics shouldn’t inhibit it from performing as a monetary asset. Cash, after all, doesn’t pay real interest either, and there is more fiat money in existence today than ever before. So why does gold still receive such harsh criticism?
We believe much of it stems from a widely held misconception that gold is forming a financial bubble. It’s a fairly straightforward view – that gold buyers are merely foolhardy speculators buying on a whim with no rationale other than to sell to the ‘greater fool’ at higher prices in the future. It’s a view that assumes that gold has no intrinsic value and is simply a speculative asset that has captured investors’ imaginations.
We don’t take these views on gold lightly. We’ve seen bubbles before and fully know how they end. We have no interest whatsoever in participating in some sort of speculative frenzy – that’s a recipe for disaster in the investment business. Thankfully, however, our gold investments present no such risk. As our analysis has revealed, gold is actually a surprisingly under-owned asset class – and one that has generated far more attention in the media than it probably deserves. While its exemplary performance since 2000 is certainly worthy of discussion, gold simply hasn’t commanded enough investment to warrant the bubble fears it seems to have aroused among market pundits and business commentators. The truth about gold is that most people simply don’t own it…yet.
To be clear, a speculative bubble forms when prices for an asset class rise above a level justified by its fundamentals. For this to happen, increasing amounts of capital must flow into the asset class, bidding it up to irrational levels. Gold may be trading at all-time nominal highs, but a look at investment flows proves that it isn’t anywhere close to being overbought.
In their Gold Yearbook 2010, CPM Group noted that in 1968, gold held by individuals for investment purposes represented approximately 5% of global financial assets. By 1980 that amount had fallen to roughly 3%. By 1990 it had dropped significantly to 0.6%, and by the year 2000 represented a mere 0.2% of global assets. By the end of 2009, nine years into the gold bull market that began in 2000, they estimate that gold had increased to represent a mere 0.6% of global financial assets – hardly much of an increase. Gold ownership didn’t change much last year either, as we estimate that this percentage increased to 0.7% of global financial assets in 2010.1 So despite gold reaching record nominal highs, the world holds about the same portion of its wealth in gold as it did over two decades ago. While this probably says more about the proliferation of financial assets over the past decade than it does about gold investment, it is surprising to note how trivial gold ownership is when compared to the size of global financial assets.
The increase in gold ownership from 0.2% in 2000 to 0.7% in 2010 is also misleading. If you consider the approximate $227 billion that was invested in gold bullion in 2000, that level of investment would have grown to $1.18 trillion, or 0.6% of financial assets, by the end of 2010 - based purely on gold appreciation alone.2 In other words, the actual amount of new investment into gold since 2000 represents only 0.1% of current global financial assets, or about $250 billion. Although this number may seem large, consider that roughly $98 trillion of new capital flowed into global financial assets over the same period, so gold’s approximate 0.3% share of global investment flows is essentially trivial.3
The 0.7% ownership data point also has interesting implications for global gold ownership going forward. Consider that to return to a meaningful level of gold investment, say to the 5% level of 1968, it would require over $9 trillion of gold investment today, or about 6.5 billion ounces of gold at the current gold price. This would represent well over 1.3 times the amount of gold ever produced throughout history and four times the amount of known gold reserves.4,5 So not only is the public relatively underinvested in gold, but at current prices it isn’t even possible to increase our gold holdings back to a meaningful level.
Gold’s apparent underinvestment also applies to gold equity financings since 2000. According to our sources, gold companies raised approximately $78 billion of equity capital in new financings over the past 11 years.6 To put this amount in perspective, this is equivalent to the total amount of equity raised by technology companies in the first three months of 2000.7
To further illustrate the lack of activity in the gold equity capital markets, we compare last year’s gold company financings with the technology company financings in the year 2000 (Chart 1). Once again, looking at the relative amount of capital market activity in the gold equity markets, we find no indication of a bubble whatsoever.