Gold befuddles Bernanke as central banks’ losses at $545 billion

Ben S. Bernanke, the world’s most-powerful central banker, says he doesn’t understand gold prices. If his peers had paid attention, they might have stopped expanding reserves that lost $545 billion in value since bullion peaked in 2011.

Bernanke, who holds economics degrees from Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and led the Federal Reserve through the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression, told the Senate Banking Committee in July that “nobody really understands gold prices (COMEX:GCZ13) and I don’t pretend to really understand them either.”

Central banks, which own 18% of all the gold ever mined, will add as much as 350 tons valued at about $15 billion this year, the London-based World Gold Council estimates. They purchased 535 tons in 2012, the most since 1964. Russia is the biggest buyer, expanding reserves by 20% since prices reached a record $1,921.15 an ounce in September 2011. Gold slumped 31% since then.

As policy makers were buying, investors were losing faith in the metal as a store of value. The value of exchange-traded products dropped by $60.4 billion, or 43%, this year, saddling hedge fund manager John Paulson with losses, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Billionaire investor George Soros sold his holdings in the biggest gold-backed ETP this year and mining companies wrote down the values of their assets by at least $26 billion.

Worst Drop

Gold, which entered a bear market in April, slid 21% to $1,316.28 in London this year on Oct. 4, set for the biggest drop since 1981. It rose sixfold as it rallied for 12 successive years through 2012, beating a 17% gain in the MSCI All- Country World Index of equities as the Standard & Poor’s GSCI gauge of commodities more than doubled. It’s this year’s third- worst performing raw material, after corn and silver. Gold today rose to $1,318.29 an ounce.

Policy makers, who are responsible for shielding their economies from inflation, often mistime gold investment decisions, buying high and selling low. They were reducing holdings when bullion reached a 20-year low in 1999 and as prices as much as quadrupled in the next nine years. Central bankers became net buyers just before the peak in 2011.

“Central bankers have typically bought when you probably should be selling and selling when you probably should be buying,” said Michael Strauss, who helps oversee about $25 billion of assets as chief investment strategist and chief economist at Commonfund Group in Wilton, Connecticut. “It’s going to be a difficult market and sometimes the price of gold is driven by emotions rather than fundamental factors. Central banks have been bad traders of gold.”

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