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Gold market disconnect: Record prices, but not demand

November 20, 2009 |  2:42 pm
Gold remains in a powerful bull market as measured by prices in the futures market, where speculators can run rampant.

But third-quarter supply and demand data from the World Gold Council show that the surge in the metal’s price to record highs ($1,146.40 an ounce as of Friday) hasn’t been accompanied by record demand for the real thing.

The recent peak in demand for physical gold, in fact, was in the third quarter of 2008 -- before the financial-system meltdown accelerated.

The World Gold Council’s report on supply and demand in the quarter ended Sept. 30 put total global demand for gold at 800.3 tons, down 34% from the 1,205.6 tons purchased in the same quarter a year earlier.

Goldbars Demand in the recent quarter also was below the 1,029.8 tons bought in the first quarter of this year, though 10% higher than the 724.8 tons of the second quarter.

Gold demand was down in the third quarter versus a year earlier in every major category of consumption, including jewelry (the biggest single source of demand), industrial use, official coins and purchases by exchange-traded funds.

The drop in physical demand partly reflects simple price-sensitivity: As gold goes up, some buyers back away.

Jewelry demand, for example, reached 673.3 tons in the third quarter of 2008, when gold’s price was mostly below $900 an ounce. In the third quarter of this year, with the price mostly above $900 and on its way to $1,009 by the quarter’s end, jewelry demand totaled 473.5 tons.

The global recession also has played a role in depressing jewelry demand this year compared with 2008, of course.

So how can the price of gold be flying when demand for the metal itself is well below recent peaks?

"This has been a speculative fund-driven futures rally," says Jon Nadler, a veteran analyst at Kitco Metals Inc. in Montreal. In other words, traders who play in the futures markets are betting on higher gold prices. But they aren’t interested in owning the actual metal.

This kind of disconnect can happen at any time in commodity markets. Remember oil in 2008?

Besides, in any market the price is set by the last buyer, whether the trade is for a huge sum or a tiny sum.

In the case of gold, it could work out that speculative demand in the futures market will be followed by a big revival in physical demand if more people around the globe decide that they must own the metal as a hedge against paper currencies, inflation, financial calamity or other reasons.

Interestingly, the Austrian government mint is betting otherwise, at least in the near term: The mint, the world’s biggest marketer of gold coins, recently said it planned to cut production by 32% in 2010, figuring that an improving global financial system will slash gold demand from investors.

The U.S. Mint, however, is siding with the bulls: On Dec. 3 it plans to resume production of American Eagle gold coins in half-ounce, quarter-ounce and tenth-of-an-ounce sizes to supplement its production of one-ounce coins.

Production of the smaller coins was suspended in 2008 because the Mint couldn’t get enough blanks from its fabricators, but that supply problem has been solved, said spokesman Michael White.

-- Tom Petruno

Photo credit: Kim Jae-Hwan / AFP/Getty Images

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