The recent slide in gold prices has left investors puzzled over why the metal is not acting in the way it was intended: a safe haven from economic uncertainty.
But as Martin Grubb, managing director of investment for the World Gold Council, explained in a recent commentary for MarketWatch, it is not all that unusual for gold to experience a delayed reaction to macroeconomic events.
That's because gold is one of the very few assets that retains its value during tumultuous economic times. It is often the go-to holding investors sell when they need to raise cash, want liquidity, or are faced with margin calls. So events can trigger a gold sell-off and knock down prices before sending them soaring.
Grubb referenced Black Monday 1987 as a perfect example. The infamous day rocked markets the world over. Many feared it was a "financial Armageddon" as billions of dollars were erased from stock prices during the month of October.
Gold, instead of rising as market participants looked for safe haven assets, dropped as it was sold to raise cash to bolster accounts. It hit as low as $390 in the months that followed before rising to $484 by the end of 1988.
An even more extreme example of gold's liquidity role was the 1997-1998 Asian currency crisis. The Korean won was unacceptable in currency markets, so the Korean government stepped in and bought gold from locals in exchange for interest-bearing won-denominated bonds.
The Korean government sold the 250 tonnes of gold it received in the international market and was able to service its debt with the sales.
A more recent example of gold's initial sell off in a financial crisis is the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008. Despite the bank's failure marking the credit crunch kick off, gold initially fell for a couple months as investors sold it for cash. Then it started a bull run that ran the price up 156% in three years.
Grubb wrote that we are currently in the infancy stage of a new crisis and gold's legendary behavioral pattern is repeating itself.
The precious metal is being liquidated to meet margin calls. In addition, it is believed the yellow metal is being lent into markets to provide ailing European banks with much needed liquidity.
"As a result, gold is not yet reacting to the worsening eurozone news and its current behavior is much like its behavior prior to and shortly after the Lehman bankruptcy," Grubb wrote.
Physical gold buying on the rise
Gold warrants a position in any portfolio, and not merely as a liquid asset, the part it played expertly during October 1987. World Gold Council research reveals that gold is a crucial component to protecting wealth.
At least some investors have caught on as the trend toward owning physical gold is gaining traction again. The latest report from the U.S. Mint shows that sales of gold bullion coins rose more than 13% in June.
Sales of the popular American Eagles have varied significantly month-to-month to date in 2012. After reaching a high of 127,000 ounces in January, and a low of 20,000 ounces in April, sales spiked in May to 53,000 ounces and rose higher in June to 60,000 ounces.
The all-time yearly sales record for gold American Eagles was reached in 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, a time many investors feared financial collapse. Some 1,435,000 ounces were sold that year.
If Europe's mess creates a crisis similar to 2008, sales of gold bullion coins could soar, surpassing 2009's levels. As the euro continues to decline, and the devalued dollar merely rises because the euro is falling, investors are becoming increasingly less confident in paper currency.
Gold prices may be choppy until the eurozone's picture comes more into focus, but gold's past is a good indicator that investors will revisit an asset that can hold its value and can be counted on for liquidity.
Gold will again have its day.