As the twin pillars of international monetary system threaten to come tumbling down in unison, gold has reclaimed its ancient status as the anchor of stability. The spot price surged to an all-time high of $1,594 an ounce in London, lifting silver to $39 in its train.On one side o
Fed chair Ben Bernanke confessed to Congress that growth has failed to gain traction. "Deflationary risks might re-emerge, implying a need for additional policy support," he said.
The bar to QE3 - yet more bond purchases - is even lower than markets had thought. The new intake of hard-money men on the voting committee has not shifted Fed thinking, despite global anger at dollar debasement under QE2.
"One of the big US banks texted me today to say that if QE3 actually happens, we could see gold at $5,000 and silver at $1,000. I feel terribly sorry for anybody on fixed incomes tied to a fiat currency because they are not going to be able to buy things with that paper money."
China, Russia, Brazil, India, the Mid-East petro-powers have diversified their $7 trillion reserves into euros over the last decade to limit dollar exposure. As Europe's monetary union itself faces an existential crisis, there is no other safe-haven currency able to absorb the flows. The Swiss franc, Canada's loonie, the Aussie, and Korea's won are too small.
"There is no depth of market in these other currencies, so gold is the obvious play," said Neil Mellor from BNY Mellon. Western central banks (though not the US, Germany, or Italy) sold much of their gold at the depths of the bear market a decade ago. The Bank of England wins the booby prize for selling into the bottom at €254 an ounce on Gordon Brown's orders in 1999. But Russia, China, India, the Gulf states, the Philippines, and Kazakhstan have been buying.
China is coy, revealing purchases with a long delay. It has admitted to doubling its gold reserves to 1,054 tonnes or $54bn. This is just a tiny sliver of its $3.2 trillion reserves. China's Chamber of Commerce said this should be raised eightfold to 8,000 tonnes.
Xia Bin, an adviser to China's central bank, said in June that the country's reserve strategy needs an "urgent" overhaul. Instead of buying paper IOU's from a prostrate West, China should invest in strategic assets and accumulate gold by "buying the dips".
Step by step, the world is edging towards a revived Gold Standard as it becomes clearer that Japan and the West have reached debt saturation. World Bank chief Robert Zoellick said it was time to "consider employing gold as an international reference point." The Swiss parliament is to hold hearings on a parallel "Gold Franc". Utah has recognised gold as legal tender for tax payments.
A new Gold Standard would probably be based on a variant of the 'Bancor' proposed by Keynes in the late 1940s. This was a basket of 30 commodities intended to be less deflationary than pure gold, which had compounded in the Great Depression. The idea was revived by China's central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan two years ago as a way of curbing the "credit-based" excess.
Mr Bernanke himself was grilled by Congress this week on the role of gold. Why do people by gold? "As protection against of what we call tail risks: really, really bad outcomes," he replied.