Gold has grabbed headlines during the COVID-19 situation, as investors have raced to safe-haven assets. While gold is valued as a hedge against short term volatility, it can also hold a long-term role in a diversified portfolio given its defensive and growth qualities. Gold can represent 2-10% of a portfolio, depending on an investor’s needs or strategy, but many investors are missing this allocation. For these investors, it has become a question of why not?
Gold as a safe haven
Gold has both defensive and growth qualities, which has led to its position as an investment safe-haven in times of volatility. It can act as a store of value, as well as holding the potential to grow.
There are two key reasons for this.
1) Gold has a low, and at times, negative correlation to other asset classes. That is, it performs differently to other asset classes and its performance is not necessarily associated with what is happening in other asset classes. This is shown in the table below:
Australian Fixed Income
Global Fixed Income
Source: Bloomberg data as at 31 December 2019. Correlations are calculated monthly over 20 years in Australian dollars. Australian equity is represented by the S&P/ASX200 Total Return Index. Global equity is represented by the MSCI World Total Return Index. Australian fixed income is represented by the Bloomberg AusBond Composite 0+ Yr Index. Global fixed income is represented by the Bloomberg Global Aggregate Total Return Index. Commodities are represented by the Bloomberg Commodity Total Return Index
2) Gold has the ability to offer positive performance in a range of market conditions, including periods of volatility. For example, if you consider the Global Financial Crisis, gold prices rose 26% while the S&P 500 fell 56%. Even in the current COVID-19 situation, between 19 February and 26 March 2020, gold gained 12.4% compared to the S&P 500 which fell 14.1% and the S&P/ASX 200 which fell 27.8% (all in AUD terms). You can see the performance of gold against other major asset classes in the chart below.
Source: Bloomberg, ETF Securities, as at 26 March 2020
This ability to perform in a range of markets comes down to gold’s position as a consumer-driven and investment-driven asset. From a consumption perspective, while around 50% of its use is in jewellery, gold is also heavily used for other purposes such as electronics or even part of medical and diagnostics equipment [1,2]
COVID-19: gold price falls and rises
Given the facts around gold as a safe-haven asset, investors may therefore wonder what happened when gold prices fell across the week starting 16 March 2020 and how gold has performed across the COVID-19 situation to date.
On the whole, gold has seen increased interest and flows during the COVID-19 situation, but markets did see price falls across the week commencing 16th March 2020. It is worth understanding why this happened, as it was less related to any concerns about gold and more related to other activities.
Gold can be vulnerable to financial deleveraging – that is, investors needing to free up cash for a variety of reasons. Equity markets were hit simultaneously by the COVID-19 situation and a price meltdown in oil markets. This affected investors with leveraged positions who would have needed to sell other assets to free up cash to pay their liabilities.
What this looks like is as follows. An investor using their own money and borrowed money to purchase investments is required to maintain the investment account at a certain value – this is a leveraged position (also called a margin loan account). If the total account falls below that value – generally because the investment itself has fallen in value, then the investor will need to ‘top up’ the account with their own cash to restore the account to its minimum value (this is a margin call). As markets fell across the week of 16 March 2020, many investors would have needed to top up their accounts and will have sold other liquid and performing assets, such as gold, to do so.
This has occurred in the past too. During the Global Financial Crisis, gold was briefly sold in October 2008 to meet investors’ cash needs for liabilities from the equity market sell off but then recovered and returned 45% in US dollar terms from its October 2008 low into March 2009, compared to the S&P500 which fell 30% in the same period.
Since then, gold has recovered, reaching seven-year highs on 25 March 2020 of A$2746.32 per ounce.
Source: Bloomberg, ETF Securities
The outlook for gold
There are a few factors to suggest gold may continue to hold value across the current crisis.
Market volatility from COVID-19
While China has begun to reopen after its COVID-19 lockdown, other countries are either in the midst of it or commencing stages of lockdown. From that perspective, investor concerns and volatility may continue for some time yet. The panic has been swift but recovery could take some time. Some sectors, like technology, are in theory well positioned for both crisis and recovery but investor confidence is a different matter. Other sectors, like retail and travel, will struggle during this period and may find ramping up post the crisis takes some time. From this perspective, many investors may continue to look for defensive assets like gold. They won’t be alone. Even central banks may bulk up their stores of gold across this period.
The low interest rate environment and prospect of quantitative easing
Gold traditionally performs well in periods of low interest rates, with investors using it rather than cash. Interest rates have been low for some time but have dropped further in the current situation. Australian rates have reached lows of 0.25% while the US has dropped to a range of 0-0.25%. Many countries, including Australia have announced fresh rounds of quantitative easing too.
At the same time as increasing numbers of retail investors seek to purchase physical gold bullion, supply chains have been disrupted by COVID-19 . Refineries in Europe, p