Picture: REUTERS/MICHAEL BUHOLZER
Picture: REUTERS/MICHAEL BUHOLZER

Like bitcoin and buffalos, gold is an unusual beast.

While it is typically a safe-haven investment, geopolitical tensions have done little to stoke the metal in recent years. However, suddenly, the gold price has woken up.

It spiked $200 an ounce in the space of just six months and on June 23 broke through $1,400 after six years of relative inertia. Gold company shares, which are typically highly geared towards the gold price, have had a staggering run. Year to date, the JSE’s gold index has gained almost 40%, surging 48% between May 27 and June 25 alone.

The question for latecomers is whether there is more room for the gold price to climb, or whether it is due for a correction.

Nick Kunze, portfolio manager at Sanlam Private Wealth, thinks there are more reasons to own gold than there were in the past, especially given low and even negative interest rates.

"We are heading towards the end of a 10-year cycle, where equity markets worldwide were a great place to be, but it now looks like the world is starting to slow a little bit."

Kunze sees the investor mindset as moving towards wealth preservation. Traditionally, bonds would be where you’d put your money when things got rocky. The problem is that holding bonds will cost you, with about $13-trillion worth of negative-yielding debt out there, he says.

"We are in a unique period in history. In economics or business school textbooks, there is no chapter on negative interest rates," says Kunze. "Things have gone so crazy, even Austria is thinking about a repeat of its 100-year issue, after the success of its 2117 offer. If you wanted to buy any of those 2.1% 2117 Austria bonds right now, you’d have to pay 60% more than their issue price, currently yielding just over 1%."

In this particular environment, Kunze says, gold starts to look appealing. "Zero interest rates on gold is better than negative interest rates on bonds."

Added to the mix is a weakening dollar — something which almost always spurs the gold price.

While Kunze sees room for further gains, he is loath to hazard a guess at where the bottom or the top of the cycle might be.

Arnold van Graan, analyst at Nedbank Corporate & Investment Banking, says gold’s present rally is being driven by the likelihood of further interest rate cuts by the US Federal Reserve.

Though the Fed decided to keep rates steady at 2.5% in mid-June, it raised the prospect of two potential rate cuts this year.

But Van Graan is wary of the gold price at current levels. "The market seems to be getting a bit ahead of itself, as rate cuts, and the quantum thereof, are not a given."

Though low interest rates are clearly a positive for gold, Wayne McCurrie of FNB Wealth & Investments is unconvinced that they’ve been playing a major role in the recent run. "Interest rates were significantly lower three years ago and we didn’t see gold prices rally."

Rather, he sees the growing intensity of the trade war between the US and China, paired with tensions in the Persian Gulf, as more likely factors behind the rally.

Whatever the reasons, gold bugs have plenty of choice if they want exposure to the metal.

"Depending on your risk profile, the best way to get exposure is through gold shares, which are highly geared to the gold price," McCurrie says.

Kunze says gold shares tend to be quite leveraged, so when the gold spot price gets going, they usually run a lot more. "Even though the shares cash-in immediately on a higher gold price, in reality it takes up to 18 months to filter down to the bottom line."

A less risky avenue is to buy into an exchange traded fund (ETF).

Locally, the long-term favourite is Absa’s NewGold, which tracks the rand gold price.

It’s close to multiyear highs due to the significantly weaker currency.

Globally, Kunze says the SPDR Gold Trust, the world’s largest gold-backed ETF, is a popular choice.

But Van Graan warns that gold and gold stocks have a tendency to suck in investors who seem to only pay attention to the metal price when it’s up sharply. "By then, it’s usually too late. The best time to buy gold stocks is when no-one wants them. Once the generalists start asking about gold, it’s usually time to get out," he says.

"Though there could be further upside, the risk is increasing in the gold space, and we would not be piling into gold at this stage."

McCurrie says investors would do well to keep in mind that "gold, over time, has been a relatively poor investment".