Gold prices hold up as demand exceeds supply
Gold has soared to record highs and there is no shortage of those wanting to get exposure to the precious metal, but will it all end in tears for investors?
Gold shone brightly this year, but analysts are divided on whether 2010 could see some of the gloss fade.
Gold closed at a record high of US$1215.30 (NZ$1715.73) in local trade on December 2, well up from its low of about US$817 an ounce in January.
"I think it will track reasonably steady for the next year or so, until the whole financial situation in the world sorts itself out," Evans and Partners analyst Cathy Moises said.
"Longer term, when the world becomes a safer place to live in, it will probably track backwards."
And Moises has a sobering assessment for marginal gold producers should that happen. "They will go broke.
"We are seeing quite a few coming on in excess of US$850 per ounce cash costs, and in fact I am seeing some coming on now that don't even quote cash costs."
Average production costs for gold miners are about US$700 an ounce.
Historically, times of economic hardship are when gold rises in value, and in booms it falls.
The situation is complicated, because as the world emerges from recession, inflation threatens, and gold, typically, is sought as a hedge against inflation.
Few market observers are confident enough to call the end of the latest world economic crisis, but there are some who have forecast that the worst is over.
"I certainly wouldn't be playing in that high-cost end space unless you have got a massive hedge position," Moises says.
But gold has a habit of making forecasters look foolish, and guessing what is around the corner can be tough.
"When everyone says gold is going to rise, you can almost guarantee it is going to come off, as people take profits," says managing director of Eagle Research Advisory, Keith Goode.
"When people say gold isn't going anywhere, it will rise."
Goode predicts gold will settle at around US$1200 or US$1300 an ounce for a while and then go up towards US$1500.
"People are comfortable at the gold price where it is now," Goode said.
"Only a month ago everyone was talking about the gold price going back down to US$1000 or US$900.
"I think the market has become adjusted to accepting a gold price around the current level."
H3 Global Advisors portfolio manager Mat Kaleel has different reasoning for believing gold will rise during the next year.
"If the government in America keeps printing money to reflate itself out of all its problems, it has consequences ... they are debasing their currency," Kaleel says.
"By printing US$1 trillion to pay for a Medicare bill, if you have the same amount of gold in the world, you have increased your money supply by 10 per cent, and the gold price should go up by about 10 per cent."
Herston Economics chief economist Clifford Bennett calls the gold run "a grand bull market" and thinks a higher gold price will be sustained for many years to come.
"I have been looking for a target of US$1250 for many months now, with the potential to rise as far as US$1450 in Q1 2010," Bennett said.
"That may be a medium-term high, but the long-term risk is still higher again to perhaps US$2500, but that is over a three-to-five-year period from now."
He says India and China value gold culturally more highly than other nations, and there is not enough supply of the metal to keep up with the accelerating rise in demand.
It seems central banks agree with his upbeat assessment.
India's central bank recently bought 200 tonnes of gold, worth US$6.7b, while Russia's central bank purchased a smaller but still significant 15.6 tonnes.
"The central banks are going to continue to buy it, the Chinese are going to continue to buy gold, India is still a steady buyer," Goode says.
But he warns that if gold prices rise too high it could cause turmoil. "You could get gold prices of US$5000 an ounce, but in that scenario you would have a complete financial meltdown. I would rather take things in acceptable levels."