With all the parallels being drawn between the Vietnam war and the Afghanistan war, the tale of how gold plays into it is an interesting one. 1971 marked the full and official untethering of the U.S. dollar from gold and the beginning of a monetary experiment that works quite well until one looks under the hood.
But what really prompted President Nixon to make his infamous decision? As MoneyWeek’s Dominic Frisby notes, in August 1971, French president Pompidou sent his officials to New York to collect the nation’s expatriated gold, battleship and all. As the British informed Nixon that he should begin preparations, the President quickly realized that he can’t part with $3 billion of physical gold and finance a costly war with Vietnam. A concession had to be made, and between a sovereign and economic one, Nixon chose the latter.
The dollar was now untethered from gold, and the U.S. was free to print it and finance the war while eroding the greenback’s purchasing power to unimaginable levels. Perhaps most importantly, Frisby reminds us that Nixon portrayed the untethering as an extreme and temporary measure, one that would only be necessary until the war effort is over. This portrayal definitely served to cushion the impact of something that might otherwise seem unacceptable, just as in the case of quite a few other governmental interventions.
Now, 50 years later, we see that the government’s assurances don’t amount to much, and we’ve gleaned a few other things as well. Money is easy to print, but physical gold is hard to come by. Frisby notes that some gold investors might be disappointed by gold’s 15% drop from its high of $2,070. But that only really refers to spot price. An ounce of paper gold might go for its spot price, but those wanting to buy gold bullion might quickly find that the price has hardly changed since last August.
Gold owners and long-time bugs should also view gold’s lack of performance compared to stocks and other asset classes as a positive development. Wall Street instructs investors to hold 10% of their portfolio in gold and hope that it doesn’t go up. That’s because gold going up significantly means economic disaster as an optimistic scenario and a global crisis as a less pleasant one.
Yet gold is indeed going up. Over the last few weeks, it fell to $1,750 only to promptly climb back to its current level of above $1,815. Investors aren’t selling, which tells us that the outlook isn’t that great. Inflation is already here, and that it will only be temporary is yet another governmental assurance that could very well rank with the aforementioned ones. All of the drivers are in place for gold to continue its move up, and that’s not counting any black swan event during a time when everyone seems to be preparing for them.
Frisby sees room for gold to jump between 30% and 40% if trouble arises. In the meantime, gold investors should hold onto their well-performing insurance and hope that the next bout of gains comes from something mild such as a stock market crash, instead of global upheaval.