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

Policy Makers

Holdings were little changed from the start of 2008 through early 2009. Then, policy makers increased gold reserves as prices doubled and they have purchased a net 884 tons since the 2011 peak, International Monetary Fund data show. Russia was the biggest buyer, adding about 171 tons. Kazakhstan bought 67.2 tons and South Korea purchased 65 tons. Turkey’s reserves swelled about 371 tons in the past two years as it accepted bullion in reserve requirements from commercial banks.

In addition to buying when prices rose, central banks sold into slumping markets, disposing of about 5,899 tons in the two decades from 1988, equal to about two years of current mine supply.

The U.K. auctioned about 395 tons from July 1999, a month before prices reached a two-decade low, through March 2002. Gold averaged about $277 as the country was selling. The Bank of England’s hoard of ingots and coins, including a bar smelted in New York in 1916, now totals 310.3 tons, or 13% of the nation’s total reserves.

Gold Standard

Warren Buffett, the fourth-richest person in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index and the world’s most successful investor, has said the metal has no utility because it moves to vaults once mined. While countries from the U.S. to the U.K. adopted a gold standard by the 19th century to limit inflation, no central bank or government institution links currencies directly to the metal anymore. The Fed, created a century ago, cut the dollar’s ties to gold four decades ago.

Bernanke, when asked to explain gold’s volatility and the long-term impact of reducing economic stimulus, told the Senate Banking Committee July 18 that investors see a reduced need for “disaster insurance.” In a Congressional hearing two years ago, he described the commodity as an asset rather than money and said central banks own bullion as a “long-term tradition.”

Following that tradition has proved a poor investment decision. Kazakhstan almost doubled reserves the past two years and South Korea expanded them sevenfold since mid-2011.

“Bernanke was suggesting in his own way that too much importance is given to gold, it’s too hyped,” said Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics and international business at New York University. “Gold is not a currency.”

Inflation Hedge

Bullion rose 70% from December 2008 to June 2011 as the Fed debased the dollar by pumping more than $2 trillion into the financial system, spurring demand for a hedge against inflation. That protection hasn’t been needed, because U.S. consumer prices have risen at an average annual pace of 1.7% in the past five years, compared with a four-decade average of 4.3%, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

After taking inflation into account, gold is worth almost half of what it was in 1980. It reached a then-record $850 that year after U.S. political and financial turmoil in the late 1970s caused a surge in consumer prices. The metal is valued at $464 in 1980 dollars, according to a calculator on the website of the Fed Bank of Minneapolis.

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