2020 was a banner year for gold-backed ETF inflows, but interest has lagged this year as investors become more comfortable taking risks.
In 2020, gold-backed exchange-traded fund (ETF) inflows ballooned to an impressive 877 tonnes, marking the largest one year intake in ETF history.
Investor appetite was fueled by economic stimulus mixed with concerns about COVID-19 closures, which together brought risk-averse buyers to the yellow metal in droves, propelling investment demand.
"Over the first three quarters of 2020, gold ETFs accounted for almost two-thirds of total investment demand," notes a monthly ETF report released by the World Gold Council (WGC) in January.
"This is significantly higher than any previous full year. Gold ETF demand was also equivalent to a quarter of the average annual gold mine production over the past five years."
Since then, gold ETF demand has waned as investors become more comfortable taking risks. So far, 2021 has seen outflows of 269.1 tonnes compared to 87.6 tonnes of inflows. Of the first 10 months of the year, six registered net outflows from the ETF segment.
In fact, a large part of gold's muted Q3 price performance has been attributed to a 7 percent decline in demand coming largely from the ETF segment. This trend continued in October, when gold ETF holdings shed 25.5 tonnes.
"Global gold ETF holdings fell to 3,567 tonnes (US$203 billion) during the month — notching year-to-date low levels — as investor appetite for gold diminished in the ETF space following price declines in August and September," an October WGC gold ETF report states.
After two months of pressure pushed the gold price to a six month low at the end of September, October saw the metal begin to rebound from the US$1,750 per ounce range to US$1,819.
Adam Perlaky, senior analyst at the WGC, told the Investing News Network (INN) that gold's price positivity in October was largely driven by growing inflationary tones.
"In recent years, gold has been inversely correlated with nominal interest rates, and yet gold strengthened during the month despite higher nominal rates," he said via email. "This is likely a result of rising inflation expectations, though changes in the relative move in interest rates may have had an impact."
He added, "Though higher rates could be a headwind for gold, broader concerns of inflation and a potential recession highlight gold's value as an effective portfolio hedge."
The role of gold amid uncertainty
Gold's use as a hedge against inflation is likely to come into focus in the coming months, a sentiment that was echoed by Juan Carlos Artigas, head of research at the WGC.
Artigas explained that while some are of the belief that the "elements of high inflation we've seen so far are transitory" and will dissipate, there will be longer-term reverberations from the current inflation, and potential secondary effects from the fiscal and monetary policies that were put in place to restart the economy.
In mid-November, JP Morgan (NYSE:JPM) said it anticipates that the US Federal Reserve will raise rates in September 2022 by 0.25 percent, followed by 25 basis point increases on a quarterly basis until real rates hit zero.
"Gold still can face headwinds from potentially higher interest rates," said Artigas.
"(The) opportunity cost of holding gold is one of the drivers of performance, and especially in the short and the medium term, interest rates tend to influence gold's behavior significantly, especially in a period where investors are looking to understand how central banks will behave."
However, as the head of research at the WGC pointed out, there are also some tailwinds that could move gold higher, including inflation that may not be transient, but more structural.
He also pointed out that interest rates are still historically very low, which has pushed investors to make their portfolios more risky. Hedging against this type of exposure is positive for gold's investment side. Additionally, on the consumer side, US infrastructure spending could also serve as a catalyst to more gold upside.
"What we know historically is that better economic growth tends to support consumption of gold, whether it is in the form of jewelry or technology, and 2021 is a good example of that, where you saw the contraction in gold-backed ETF holdings, you (also) saw an increase in demand coming from jewelry, technology and even bar and coin investment," Artigas commented to INN.
Another factor the researcher is watching is central bank gold holdings, which are on track for a 12th consecutive year of inflows. Artigas noted that a 2021 survey of central bankers conducted by the WGC found that the monetary institutes are interested in "expanding the role that gold has in foreign reserves."
"We do expect central banks to continue to be net buyers," he said, adding, "We have seen investors, especially more strategic longer-term investors, taking advantage of the price pullback that we saw in previous months as an opportunity to add gold to their portfolios."
For investors wanting to look at the strategic role gold has played throughout history, the WGC recently released a five part documentary series titled The Golden Thread.
The price of gold was at the US$1,790 level on November 25.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Georgia Williams, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
Editorial Disclosure: The Investing News Network does not guarantee the accuracy or thoroughness of the information reported in the interviews it conducts. The opinions expressed in these interviews do not reflect the opinions of the Investing News Network and do not constitute investment advice. All readers are encouraged to perform their own due diligence.