If you want conspiracy theories, gold’s your boy.
The big favourite is that “they” – meaning the central banks hand-in-hand with major financial institutions – have been artificially repressing the gold price for years.
As with all good conspiracy theories, the case has a certain plausibility; it is light years away from the UFO/the Americans were behind the World Trade Centre collapse type of weirdo ideas.
But another theme running through much of the online discussion about gold in recent years is the actions of President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933, when the US government made illegal the private ownership of gold.
And you sit up and take notice when this issue is raised on what appears to be a reputable US website, one of which posted an article recently titled “Could the government seize your gold?”
The piece allowed that no president had done a similar thing since Roosevelt and that “in fact, many experts say a repeat of that episode is highly unlikely”. So, the article is setting out to be fair and balanced.
But then it goes on to explain that Roosevelt took the action on gold to effectively devalue the US dollar but at the same time chaining Americans to the greenback and thus propping up the paper currency at its reduced worth.
As banks collapsed in the Great Depression, Americans rushed to exchange their paper money for gold (the yellow metal then backed the dollar) but, of course, there simply wasn’t enough gold in the vaults to cover all the paper notes in circulation.
Moreover, the US suffered serious gold drains to foreign countries – they wanted to take their assets home as a hard asset, not as a promissory note from Washington.
So, in addition to private ownership, Washington also banned the exporting of gold.
It wasn’t until 1974 that President Gerald Ford reinstated the right of private gold ownership.
But what is worrying gold bugs is that, to them, the situation now bears close resemblance to that of 1933 – the sinking currency and a ballooning national debt.
In fact, with more “quantitative easing” being planned in Washington, the value of the greenback will decline even further which, actually, is the main driver behind the gold price now.
But I think we can rest easy about gold and government seizures. It simply won’t happen.
In 1933, relatively few people around the world owned gold; now gold ownership is rising in China, Australia, Europe and the Middle East. It’s a totally different ball game.
However, we live in uncertain times, so it might be instructive to examine what really did happen in 1933.
An article written soon after the event (in a 1934 academic journal) explains that the abandonment of the gold standard and the subsequent ban on private ownership or export of gold “must be viewed as part of a general program of currency and credit inflation then being developed”. (The events about to unfold soon and into 2011 certainly fit the same pattern.)
But here’s the thing that the gold worrywarts rarely mention: the president’s decision to effectively nationalise all the gold within US borders was not taken in the form of a vendetta against gold. Why would it?
At the time, the US held about a quarter of the monetary gold in the world and in 1933 its stockpile was worth $US2.7 billion.
No, what it was about was adjusting the value of the dollar to 50-60% of the former gold value.
Roosevelt faced a situation where banks were failing, the silver industry was trying to get its metal remonetised and the US financial system was verging on collapse.
Historians have, over the past decade, not treated Roosevelt well, many arguing persuasively that much of his New Deal and financial regulations made matters worse and triggered a second collapse in 1937.
But it’s not that complex issue that is remembered today. What remains is that Roosevelt was seen as a virtual dictator – in fact, newspaper headlines used that very term.
When the deadline for the handing in of all gold expired on 27 March 1933, the Federal Reserve had taken possession of metal worth $US503 million.
But then, as the New York Times reported the next day, Roosevelt had previously ordered a list to be drawn up of all those who had, in the previous two years, drawn out large sums of gold and had not returned it.
It left as very nasty taste – and one that resonates today.
But, this time it is different. True, the financial system is shaky. True, we are about to see two tectonic plates move in opposite directions – the US inflating by printing more money, Europe potentially heading down the deflationary path with austerity programs.
But we can probably put to bed the fear that we’ll see any western government seize gold because, unlike 1933, there is no longer the gold standard that caused the problem in the first place.