Gold re-emerges as safe haven amid market uncertainty

CALGARY - The year has been a roller-coaster for stock markets and that's giving the traditional safe haven of gold a big boost.

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The price of gold has climbed from around US$1,060 per troy ounce at the beginning of the year to more than US$1,240 last week. Over that same time, the S&P/TSX composite index is down 4.8 per cent.

"Investors are suddenly waking up to the risks in the market, pretty much like what happened in 2008," says Robert Cohen, portfolio manager at Scotiabank's Dynamic Funds.

"This time it's more of a slower motion train wreck out there, so people are slowly digesting that information and systematically moving to safe havens like gold."

So is it time to buy in?

Some central banks think so. Last year saw the second-highest amount of gold bought by central banks in at least 20 years as countries like Russia and China bolstered their reserves, according to the World Gold Council.

Mark Allen, vice-president of Canadian equities at RBC Wealth Management, says there's been strong demand for gold from banks wanting to diversify their currency holdings as the odds of interest rate hikes in the U.S. fade and other countries like Japan move to negative interest rates.

"The reason they're doing it is due to declines in currencies broadly around the world, so they want an alternative means of securing their wealth," says Allen.

For the average investor, fluctuations in the Nigerian nira or the Azerbaijani manat might seem inconsequential, but Cohen says holding gold would have buffered investors from losses in our own Canadian dollar.

While the loonie has dropped about 31 per cent against the U.S. dollar from its peak in 2011, gold priced in Canadian dollars has only dropped about 11 per cent in the same period, and on Monday was trading at about C$1,670 per troy ounce.

"The last two years we've seen a bit of a stealth rally in gold, insofar as in Canadian prices it's moved up very nicely because of the weakening Canadian dollar," says Cohen.

He says investors shouldn't think about the price of gold in U.S. dollars while looking at everything else they buy in Canadian dollars.

"Certainly if you look at your house price in USD, it may have gone down in price over the last year."

But while gold may have soared recently, it still pays no interest or dividends, and so it should be thought of more as insurance than an investment, says Scott Vali, portfolio manager of Global Resources at CIBC Asset Management.

"It is a bit of an insurance policy against an upset in the broader financial market," says Vali. "I think that's the way it should be looked at. Insurance policies generally don't earn you a return, they're there in case something goes wrong."

Vali says that with gold somewhat inversely tied to the broader economy, how much you invest in gold depends on your outlook.

"At the end of the day, it depends on your view of what the global economy is going to look like."

Cohen says the amount varies with risk tolerance, but he recommends at least five per cent and upwards of 20 per cent.

Allen says he finds buying gold difficult because it's hard to value with virtually no industrial purpose, and it has a tendency to have big price swings.


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