Are the golden years over for gold?
With prominent hedge fund managers such as George Soros selling large quantities of gold, and the price down about 16 percent from 2011's all-time peak of more than $1,900, some experts think gold's best days could be tarnished by the world's nascent economic recovery.
"We have been concerned about gold and silver prices for some time, and the recent loss of momentum has concerned us even more," said Citigroup analyst Jon Bergtheil in a report. He says it's possible that the 12-year bull market in gold and silver has ended.
"If gold is currently peaking, it may have a long way to go down in terms of dollars per ounce, as well as in the matter of the extended time frame," Bergtheil said.
So investors who bought gold thinking it would always be a winner could be disappointed by a slump much worse than gold's slide to $1,603.60 an ounce Tuesday. The last time a bull market in gold ended, in 1980, gold was a loser for nearly 30 years after peaking at $850 an ounce. Gold declined to $252 and didn't return to its $850 peak until 2008.
Bergtheil is recommending that investors who invest in mining company stocks move from what he calls the "insurance metals" to industrial metals.
The thinking is that gold and silver were purchased for protection from the financial crisis and Great Recession in 2008. And as the Federal Reserve and other central banks throughout the world attempted to resuscitate the global economy by pouring trillions of dollars into the system, gold has been attractive as a hedge against potential inflation from too much stimulus.
Recently, however, with some signs of recovery in China and the U.S., stocks have become increasingly attractive, and some hedge funds, which move money around as they see opportunity in different types of investments, have added stocks to portfolios while selling some gold. Bergtheil has suggested to client investors in metals to select industrial metals used for construction and industrial purposes rather than gold and silver. Platinum, which is a precious metal that also is used for industrial purposes, has climbed about 10 percent this year, while spot gold has declined 4.25 percent.
Still, getting a clear signal on gold for the long term isn't easy.
Gold has "proven to be fickle," said Barclays commodities analyst Suki Cooper. "For now, gold appears to be without a clear driver, given its range trade amid reduced investor conviction."
But he noted in a recent report to clients that as the U.S. Congress begins to debate what to do about the nation's deficit and debt ceiling this spring, gold could be revived as a safe haven.
In August 2011, when gold was near its peak, investors were worried about European and U.S. political leaders unable to solve debt problems. At the time, the United States' debt rating was downgraded by Standard & Poor's, and it appeared that European debt issues were so extreme they would set off banking problems that could infect the global financial system. Since then, European leaders have calmed investors by providing aid to troubled banks and countries.
Stocks have climbed sharply in Europe and the U.S. as a result. And since European Central Bank leader Mario Draghi pledged to "do whatever it takes" to keep the eurozone intact, investors have become increasingly optimistic a recovery will take hold.
Yet, as the Federal Reserve and other central banks have poured massive amounts of stimulus into the system by what is often called "printing money," investors have continued to buy gold as a potential hedge against inflation and a decline in the dollar's value.
The presumption has been, however, that if the Fed signals an end to stimulus, gold prices will recede. Analysts said Tuesday that gold had dipped while investors await the Fed's minutes from the last Federal Open Market Committee meeting, to be released Wednesday.
Meanwhile, analysts such as John LaForge of Ned Davis Research warn investors that "decoding gold's drivers at any given moment is risky business."
"In the short term, 2013, we think the greatest risk to gold is a U.S. dollar rally," he said, but adds, "The big caveat here is that gold has more moving parts than a Swiss timepiece."
That should be a sobering message for individuals swept up by late-night TV and radio ads touting gold as a no-brainer under any conditions.
LaForge thinks there is still upside for gold but says, "How much upside gold has left will depend largely on the pace of global money printing."
But as various gold promoters argue that gold investing is done as protection amid fear, or gold is a hedge against inflation, or gold is a bet on the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing (stimulus), LaForge says "the truth is that gold falls somewhere in the middle of all of that."
He warns: "Gold is anything but simple."