LAUNCESTON, Australia (Reuters) - The three legs that supported gold’s extended rally from just after the 2008 global recession until the all-time peak in 2011 may be making something of a comeback this year.
This is sparking hopes that the precious metal may finally break out of a fairly narrow five-year range, although it’s still far from certain that the dynamics for a sustained rally are entrenched.
The 2008-11 rally that saw spot gold almost triple in value to reach a record of $1,920.30 an ounce was built on three pillars, namely strong physical demand from top buyers China and India, robust central bank purchases, and appetite for a safe haven investment amid the fallout from the global recession.
With all three of these factors working in concert, gold posted solid gains before likely entering a bubble market, with hot money chasing a trend that was fuelled by the usual outlandish forecasts of a never-ending spectacular rally.
However, while central bank buying remained solid, the two other legs of gold’s rally, namely the largely Western-driven investment buying and Indian and Chinese buying moderated after the September 2011 record.
(Graphic: Gold price vs SPDR holdings - tmsnrt.rs/2SRXTi7)
The recovery in the global economy limited the fear-appeal of gold, while the high prices stymied physical demand in India and China.
This has meant that gold has effectively meandered in a rough range between $1,050 and $1,380 since the start of 2014.
Notwithstanding the recent 11 percent rally from a low of $1,159.96 an ounce on Aug. 16 to the close of $1,287.50 on Jan. 11, gold remains within that range.
But there are some signs that gold may make an effort to challenge the upper reaches of its range in coming months.
A weaker U.S. dollar is generally a boost to gold, especially if the reason for the lower greenback is the winding back of expectations for more interest rate increases and the ramping up of concerns about an economic slowdown.
This is currently the case, with the U.S. Federal Reserve signalling it could be more patient with its monetary tightening.
Concern over the global economy is also increasing amid signs of softer growth in China amid the ongoing trade dispute with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, and weaker manufacturing numbers in Europe and the United States.
If these concerns persist, or amplify, then Western buying of gold as a hedge may increase.
Certainly there is evidence this is already occurring, with holdings in the SPDR Gold Trust, the world’s largest gold-backed exchange-traded fund, reaching a six-month high last week.
Short-term drivers such as the U.S. government shutdown and volatile equity markets are dove-tailing with the longer-term themes of slower world growth and mounting geopolitical tensions on the back of the Trump administration’s upending of long-standing U.S. foreign policies.
There are also signs that physical demand in China, the world’s biggest buyer, is picking up, with net imports via the main conduit of Hong Kong rising 28 percent in November from the prior month to the highest since July.
Net imports jumped to 37.871 tonnes in November from 29.633 tonnes in October, according to data released on Dec. 27 by the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department.
While not a full picture of China’s gold demand, the Hong Kong data has been a reliable pointer to broader trends.
Gold demand in India may also be about to pick up as the second-biggest consumer enters the demand-heavy wedding season and exits Khar Mass, an inauspicious period in the Hindu calendar, from Dec. 16 to Jan. 14, during which people generally avoid holding weddings and buying gold or property.
Demand figures for the fourth quarter haven’t yet been released by the World Gold Council, but third quarter numbers showed Chinese demand up 10 percent from the same period in 2017, while India’s was also 10 percent higher.
Central bank buying has also been rising, according to the council, which reported net inflows of 148.4 tonnes in the third quarter of last year, up 22 percent from the same period in 2017.
In fact, central bank buying for the first three quarters of 2018 is only 23.2 tonnes short of the 374.8 tonnes recorded for the whole of 2017.
As long as the three pillars of gold demand continue to work together, and supply remains steady, it’s likely that gold can continue to gain.
The risk is that the many disputes and controversies surrounding the Trump administration start to resolve, thereby improving global economic sentiment.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
Editing by Richard Pullin