Gold as an Inflation Hedge: What the Past 50 Years Teaches Us
And what the future of gold looks like.
And what the future of gold looks like.
On a Sunday evening 50 years ago—on Aug. 15, 1971, to be exact—then-President Nixon interrupted “Bonanza,” one of the most popular TV shows of that era, to announce that he was ending the convertibility of the U.S. dollar into gold. Many consider it to be one of the most consequential decisions he made.
Up until this “closing of the gold window,” foreign central banks had been able to convert U.S. dollars into gold bullion at the fixed price of $35 an ounce. In theory, this had imposed a strict monetary discipline on the Federal Reserve, since inflating the money supply could have caused a run on Fort Knox, where the U.S. stored its supply of gold. And inflation did indeed jump in the years following Nixon’s decision to remove that restraint. So did the price of gold, which today is 50 times as high as it was that day.
This apparent correlation between gold and inflation has led many to believe that gold is a good inflation hedge. This belief isn’t supported by the data, however. If gold were a good and consistent hedge, the ratio of its price to the consumer-price index would have been relatively steady over the years. But that hasn’t been the case, as you can see from the accompanying chart: Over the past 50 years, the ratio has fluctuated from a low of 1.0 to a high of 8.4.
Gold is only a good inflation hedge over time frames far longer than any of our investment horizons, according to research conducted by Duke University professor Campbell Harvey and Claude Erb, a former commodities portfolio manager at TCW Group. They found that it’s only when measured over very long periods—a century or more—that gold has done a relatively good job maintaining its purchasing power. Over shorter periods its real, or inflation-adjusted, price fluctuates no less than that of any other asset.
Gold’s weakness as an inflation hedge may be even more pronounced today, Prof. Harvey says, because “gold is currently very expensive compared to its history.” The current gold-to-CPI ratio stands at 6.7, for example, nearly double its 50-year average of 3.6.
Even though the price of gold is 50 times as high as in 1971, stocks have performed even better. The S&P 500 has produced an annualized return of 11.2% since August 1971, assuming dividends were reinvested along the way. That compares with 8.2% annualized for gold.
Furthermore, the only reason gold came even this close to matching stocks over the past 50 years was its huge return during the first decade following Nixon’s announcement. Take away that decade, and gold has lagged behind even intermediate-term Treasury notes. Over the past 40 years, gold has risen at a 3.6% annualized rate, compared with 12.2% for the S&P 500 and 8.2% for the Treasurys.
This doesn’t mean gold has no role to play in a diversified portfolio, however, even assuming the future will be like the past. Because the correlation of its returns with those of either equities or bonds has often been low or even negative, its presence in a portfolio can reduce volatility. Over the past 50 years, a stock-and-bond portfolio could have improved its risk-adjusted performance by adding a small allocation to gold—around 5% or so.
Still, even gold’s volatility-reducing potential isn’t guaranteed, since gold’s correlation with stocks has varied widely over the years. In fact, there have been occasions in which gold’s correlation to the stock market has been positive, which is just the opposite of what it should be to reduce a portfolio’s risk. One such recent occasion came during the stock market’s waterfall decline in February and March last year: Stocks of gold-mining shares dropped 39%, as measured by VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX)—even more than the 34% drop in the S&P 500. “What kind of safe haven is that?” Prof. Harvey asks.
Gold’s inconsistent correlation with both stocks and inflation makes it difficult to project how it will perform over the next 50 years. An additional wild card, according to Prof. Harvey, is that gold now faces “competition it’s never had before” because of the advent of cryptocurrencies.
It is always possible that gold will be a more consistent inflation hedge in coming years. It’s just that you will have to look elsewhere than history to find support for such a possibility. Mr. Erb is cynical whether this will pose much of an obstacle to gold’s true believers, however: “The past can always be brushed aside when dreaming about how gold and inflation might move in tandem in the future.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Many people are spending more than they think as inflation stays elevated
Many people have a gap between what they think they spend and what they actually spend. This gap has widened recently as the financial and psychological effects of higher prices further strain people’s budgets.
Elevated inflation has rippled through American’s wallets for more than a year now. Some have cut back, while others have increased their spending to keep up. Credit-card balances were staying relatively flat for a while, but have jumped higher recently.
In the fourth quarter of 2022, the average household’s credit-card balance was $9,990, up 9% from in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to WalletHub, a consumer-finance website. Meanwhile, the average credit-card interest rate rose to a record high of about 20% last week, according to Bankrate.
Financial advisers say the larger amount of credit-card debt while rates are higher is one indication that some Americans are spending more than they think they are. This type of spending can reduce people’s ability to pay for important items down the road, such as college for a child or even fund their own retirement. More immediately, it will put people in costlier debt.
“If people spend too much on credit, they could end up trapped in a cycle of debt,” said Courtney Alev, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma.
Spending less isn’t always possible when everything from groceries to travel is generally more expensive. Still, people can find ways to cut back if they understand more about why they are overspending and take a closer look at their finances.
The power of compounding is a boon to investors, but not to shoppers.
Money grows much faster than most people expect because interest is earned on interest, said Michael Liersch, head of Wells Fargo & Co.’s advice and planning centre. A similar concept applies to inflation: Prices rise, and if inflation remains high, prices continue to grow on top of already-inflated prices, leaving people off guard.
“People get constantly surprised that their money isn’t going as far as they thought it would,” he said.
The cost of eating out and going for drinks continues to take Dina Lyon aback. Even though the 36-year-old married mother of one is dining out and ordering in far less than she did a year ago, some prices still give her sticker shock.
“The difference between cooking at home—about $10 for nice pasta and quick sauce from canned tomatoes—versus Italian takeout of $50 is astronomical,” said Ms. Lyon, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
People tend to underestimate their future spending in large part because they base their predictions on typical expenses that come to mind easily, said Abigail Sussman, a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
She and other researchers found that when people are coming up with predictions, they tend to think about what they usually spend money on—such as groceries, rent and gas—and base their predictions primarily on these expenses. They are less likely to consider atypical expenses, such as car repairs or birthday presents, the researchers found.
This pattern is particularly problematic when inflation is high, said Prof. Sussman. When the price of the same basket of items rises, people might not account for these price increases in their future budgets, she said.
Further, times of stress cause people to be less intentional about tracking their money, said Mr. Liersch. They might also spend more than they know they can afford to soothe feelings including anxiety and depression.
According to a recent survey by Credit Karma, 39% of Americans identify as emotional spenders (defined by the study as someone who spends money to cope with emotional highs and lows.)
You have a better chance of staying under budget if you become more aware of your spending instead of sticking your head in the sand, financial advisers said.
One thing Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, does is create a line item in his monthly budget for one-off expenses, such as an unexpected medical bill. This gives him a cushion in his budget and enables him to more fully examine how much he is spending each month, said Prof. Alter, who has studied overspending.
People might also wish to include an escalating buffer into their budgets of say, 2% to 5% a year, to account for inflation, he said.
Jay Zigmont, a financial planner in Water Valley, Miss., looks at clients’ total take-home income from the year, subtracts everything they must spend money on such as their mortgage and how much they saved. The remaining number is how much they spent on discretionary spending.
In most cases, clients are surprised they spent so much, he said.
Once people know how much they spend, Britta Koepf, a financial planner in Independence, Ohio, suggests they practice mindful spending. Before any purchase, ask yourself if you really want or need what you are buying. Frequently, the answer is yes, but sometimes waiting five seconds will prevent you from overspending, she said.
You can also practice mindfulness by delaying purchases further.
“A lot of the time, if I tell myself that I will purchase it next week, I find that I am no longer interested a week later,” she said.
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