When Wall Street is afraid, the world is dazzled by gold. That’s what happened in August and September when COVID-19 panic pushed gold prices above $2,000 an ounce. Gold outperformed stocks during the volatile year of 2020, with gold prices rising 24.6%, compared with the 18.4% total returns delivered by the S&P 500 index. .
Investing in gold based on your short-term prediction for stocks is sheer speculation. But investing a small amount in gold stocks or funds can be a valuable inflation hedge and portfolio diversifier. Here’s when investing in gold makes sense, and why it has nothing to do with what’s happening in the stock market.
1. It’s been valued throughout human civilization
Global demand for jewelry was down 29% in the third quarter of 2020 year over year, according to the World Gold Council. The drop is largely attributed to the economic devastation of the pandemic, coupled with the skyrocketing price of the precious metal.
But gold has been highly sought after for thousands of years across cultures. The Ancient Egyptians considered it the flesh of the gods. The Incas called it the sweat of the sun. Today, demand for gold jewelry is especially strong in emerging markets, particularly China, where it’s frequently gifted for special occasions and the Chinese New Year. It’s also valued in India, where wedding season and the festival of Diwali commonly trigger a buying frenzy. These markets accounted for the largest pandemic-related declines.
Still, gold’s cultural and historic significance throughout civilization isn’t going to be reversed by the coronavirus. You can count on gold holding its value, even if a global recession tanks jewelry demand in the short term.
2. The supply remains scarce
If all the gold mined in human history were melded together, it would fit into a cube of just 21 meters, or 69 feet, on each side. That’s roughly enough to fill 3.7 Olympic-size swimming pools. Contrary to popular belief, though, the Earth actually has ample amounts of gold. It’s just that mining it is incredibly difficult, and most sources don’t contain enough gold to make mining cost-effective.
Only 0.1% of mine prospects actually get developed into a mine. The exploration and development phases often take a decade or more before gold can actually be mined. Given the complexities of gold mining with current technology, the global supply remains limited, which keeps prices high.
3. It has lower volatility than most other commodities
Investors tend to seek out commodities because they have a low correlation with stocks, so their prices don’t move in tandem. Many commodities have returns that tend to move in the opposite direction of the stock market. Commodities are also a common inflation hedge because prices often rise when inflation goes up. Historically, gold prices have performed better on average in the U.S. when inflation is above 3%.