Could gold have a role in calming financial markets?

By James Melik
Reporter, Business Daily, BBC World Service

image captionEgyptians associated gold with magical properties 5,000 years ago

With central banks around the world printing money to pump into their financial systems to prevent them from seizing up, the argument for a return to the gold standard has become popular again.

The gold standard was a commitment by participating countries to fix the prices of their domestic currencies in terms of a specified amount of gold.

The idea, in theory at least, was that you could convert your currency into gold at the fixed price.

The view from investment banker Jim Rickards is that something is needed to stop governments from printing money in order to deal with their debt - that hurts savers by making money worth less.

"The worst case scenario is hyperinflation, which hurts everyone. Sticking to gold makes such a policy impossible, and therefore stops governments and central banks from abusing their power," he says.

Ross Norman, of London bullion brokers Sharps Pixley, does not think gold is necessarily the medium one would choose to use, although it could be part of the solution.

"I don't think we could go back to a gold standard as such, but I think that central bankers could do with some financial constraints or disciplines placed on them to prevent them overexpanding the balance sheet," he says

"To some extent, gold does that role," he adds.

Range of issues

However, it is not an argument which goes down well with everyone.

"I completely disagree about the idea of going back to a gold standard," says Gerard Lyons of Standard Chartered Bank.

"What we saw in the past was the gold standard didn't work," he says.

"Whatever situation you are in, it makes it worse. So if you are in good times, it makes them become bubble times. If you are in bad times, it makes them become even worse," he asserts.

Central banks in the emerging world need buffers to protect themselves, and those central banks do not want to put all their reserves into the dollar.

"There are limited alternatives they could use in terms of other currencies," says Mr Lyons, "So gold is taking up a bigger share in terms of currency reserves across the emerging world."

My Lyons says there is a whole range of issues which need to be addressed, such as the need for stability.

"What I think we are likely to see and hence the focus on gold in some respects is a move to a multipolar world and to a multicurrency world," he notes.

"It makes sense in the future for more countries to think about managing their own particular currency against the basket of currencies with which they trade. That is less about gold itself and more about the fact that the world is changing. Gold does not give you that flexibility."

However, a strong demand for gold is likely to be maintained as economies such as China and India become wealthier and bigger.

Growing demand

Ben Bernanke, the head of the US Federal Reserve, said that the main reason to hold gold is because of a fear that something could go wrong with the financial system, and therefore you hold a small amount of gold because you think that even though it will have intrinsic value like any other commodity, is likely to have a better value in the event of a shock elsewhere in the financial system.

Mr Lyons says gold should be treated as a basic commodity just like food or oil and, just like other commodities, it has a firm floor and a soft ceiling.

"The soft ceiling for oil would be geopolitical risks, which always push the ceiling much higher," he explains.

"For gold, its soft ceiling is when suddenly people become worried about the dollar, about global inflation."

But the longer term underlying trend is that more people in the emerging world will be wealthier and it is likely that more of them will want to demand gold for many different reasons in the future.

The demand for gold as jewellery peaked in 2000, but demand for gold to be held as coins or in bars continues to rise.

"Most of the buying we have seen over the last couple of years has been in coins and bars, reflecting a different sentiment - people are concerned about bank solvency and even economic Armageddon," says Mr Lyons.

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