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NEW YORK – Nothing is going gold's way.
Inflation remains tame, the dollar looks strong and Americans are increasingly confident. Even fears that the Federal Reserve would set off another financial crisis have faded as the central bank ends its effort to pump money into the economy.
In short, all of the reasons for buying gold over recent years have disappeared, helping to drive prices for the metal to a four-year low.
"I think the big reason gold has lost so much ground is because confidence is coming back," says Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis. Last week, a measure of U.S. consumer confidence reached its highest level in seven years.
"If you're not as scared anymore, you might be fine putting some money in the stock market," Paulsen says. "It's all about fear turning to greed."
Gold dropped $22 to settle at $1,145.70 an ounce on Wednesday, the lowest finish for the precious metal since April 2010. U.S. stocks, meanwhile, hover near all-time highs.
The metal's popularity peaked in the aftermath of the financial crisis. After seeing their savings wiped out, people rushed to investments considered safe, places where they could stash their money and count on getting it back. Gold, along with U.S. government bonds, carried a bullet-proof reputation.
A lack of trust in Wall Street and government added to gold's appeal, amid loud warnings that the Fed's efforts to jump-start the economic recovery would backfire. Pundits and many investors said the Fed risked creating financial market bubbles, a steep drop in the dollar and runaway inflation. Television advertisements portrayed gold as both reliably stable and likely to gain in popularity when the next disaster hit. Gold is supposed to go up when other assets fall.
Except the next disaster never arrived. Nerve-wracking moments occasionally drove traders out of stocks and into gold. The metal peaked at $1,923 an ounce in August 2011, right after Standard & Poor's stripped the U.S. of its top credit rating.
But thanks to a stable dollar and weak inflation, gold has been on a long and steady decline ever since. Over the past year, for instance, the dollar index, which measures the greenback against other major currencies, picked up 9 percent. Inflation crept up 1.7 percent. Meanwhile, gold lost 13 percent.
At the height of the gold rush, financial advisors told clients they could put between 5 and 10 percent of their savings in the metal, says John Gabriel, a strategist at Morningstar in Chicago. Gabriel, who sees no good reason to own gold on its own, thinks this advice was partly a response to the crisis. Advisors wanted to reassure their clients that they had adapted to the changing financial landscape. In 2009, people were in no mood to jump back into the stock market. Gold looked like the better bet.
"It was supposed to be a safe haven when markets collapsed," Gabriel says, "but that really hasn't happened."
In certain political circles, people were advised to stock up on gold, guns and ammunition, Gabriel notes. "From an investment perspective, they would have been better off just buying the guns and ammo."
Among investment strategists, there's a growing belief that the worst for gold has yet to come. A surprise announcement by the Bank of Japan last Friday that it will expand its efforts to revive that country's growth sent traders out of Japanese yen and into U.S. dollars. Gold plunged in response. In the U.S., the Fed's next big step is an interest-rate increase, expected sometime next year. That should make savings accounts, money-market funds and other short-term investments more appealing. A higher benchmark rate would also sap inflation pressures and give the dollar another lift.
Current trends, in other words, are all blowing against the yellow metal.
In a recent report, Michael Haigh, global head of commodities research at Societe Generale in New York, looked at how commodity prices responded in periods of gradually higher interest rates. Some commodities, such as copper and heating oil, tend to climb, because a steady increase in rates reflects an improving economy.
But buying gold is betting on bad news. Haigh's team expects gold to drop all the way to $900 an ounce by 2017. It's an example of what the report calls "a speculative bubble in the process of deflating."
To be sure, Wall Street wisdom says that a good time to buy something is often when everybody has turned against it. When the crowd is full of bears, in other words, it's time to be a bull.
"Perhaps that's the best thing you can say about gold," says Edward Meir, a senior commodity consultant at INTL FCStone in New York. "Everybody is bearish on it. Honestly, though, I can't see any bullish story at all."