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Evaluating the Wisdom of Buying Gold

August 16, 2012

At the end of January 2008, I posted a discussion about how the book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki could explain gold’s price climb. The book’s premise was basically that “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few.”

Even before the height of the global crisis, there was a “wise crowd” of institutional and individual investors who had been buying gold as a safe haven from currency risks and the trillions of dollars invested in derivatives, and as a way to recycle petrodollars.

It’s amazing to see the rise of gold since that initial post. On the day of the initial post, the metal was $925; now it’s a little over $1,600.  This means that a hypothetical $10,000 investment in gold bullion at the beginning of 2008 in gold would have grown to $17,500 today.

Hypothetical Growth of $10,000 in Gold Bullion

Are the gold buyers still “wise” according to Surowiecki’s book—or have they become “groupthinkers”? Below are excerpts from the original post that helps distinguish between the two:

Crowd wisdom is not to be confused with “groupthink,” in which members of a group prize consensus and to get it, they suppress any contrary viewpoints to avoid conflict. Groupthink often leads to ill-considered decisions.

European central bankers selling so much of their gold at low prices is an example of groupthink, as is the media’s reluctance to accept gold as an asset class. When I’m asked to talk about gold on TV, the questions usually come from the perspective that gold has gone up and now it’s time for it to fall.

Back in the 1800s, Charles Mackay wrote a book called “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” in which he discusses Europe’s famous tulip frenzy in the 1600s (one bulb sold in Holland for 40 times the country’s average family income) and other irrational market behavior that creates speculative bubbles.

Despite the assertions of some, today’s gold is not the tulip of 400 years ago. While there are many who believe in gold, not everyone is believing and buying. What we’re seeing in the market is not a bubble-blowing frenzy fueled by crowd madness. Below is Kitco’s chart of gold in 1980—in January of that year, the price went up 40 percent in seven trading days to its peak and over the next five days nearly all of that gain was lost. Now that was a bubble.

Gold - London PM Fix 1980

Back to The Wisdom of Crowds, the following are the four interlocking factors that create the “wise crowd,” as identified by the book.

Diversity of opinion: There are many plausible ways to explain why gold is an attractive investment in the current environment: gold’s positive correlation to the price of oil, its inverse relationship to the dollar, rising wealth and demand in emerging markets, the unknown depth of the escalating derivative crisis, prospects of a U.S. recession, and more. Then there’s the question of whether to buy bullion, gold stocks, gold funds and gold ETFs. With so many variables, investors can believe in gold and still have differences of opinion on the “why” and the “how.”

Independence: Believing in gold does not derive from a fixed formula and it is not a managed process. Investors acting in their own best interests take in what they see as relevant information from a variety of sources and analyze it to arrive at an individual viewpoint that they can act on. This independence minimizes the chances of crowd madness.

Decentralization: One doesn’t have to show up at a designated place to get information about gold or to buy it. Gold believers are scattered around the world, and along with the readily available information in print and online, they can make local observations that add to their knowledge base. Someone in Nevada can note that a local gold mine is hiring more workers, while someone else in Mumbai can see if more people are patronizing the local gold jewelry shops.

Aggregation: Once information is gathered and analyzed by a wide range of self-interested investors located across the continents, global markets present a venue for both believers and non-believers to act. So do local gold-coin shops and jewelers.

Four years ago the activity in gold fit well with these factors. I believe they remain true today.

See why Warren Buffett bashes gold.

Which way will the pendulum swing for gold?

All opinions expressed and data provided are subject to change without notice. Some of these opinions may not be appropriate to every investor. Standard deviation is a measure of the dispersion of a set of data from its mean. The more spread apart the data, the higher the deviation. Standard deviation is also known as historical volatility.

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