By BRETT ARENDS
I can't imagine it means anything cheerful that Vladimir Putin, the Russian czar, is stockpiling gold as fast as he can get his hands on it.
According to the World Gold Council, Russia has more than doubled its gold reserves in the past five years. Putin has taken advantage of the financial crisis to build the world's fifth-biggest gold pile in a handful of years, and is buying about half a billion dollars' worth every month.
It emerged last month that financial gurus George Soros and John Paulson had also increased their bullion exposure, but it's Putin that's really caught my eye.
No one else in the world plays global power politics as ruthlessly as Russia's chilling strongman, the man who effectively stole a Super Bowl ring from Bob Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, when they met in Russia some years ago.
Putin's moves may matter to your finances, because there are two ways to look at gold.
On the one hand, it's an investment that by most modern standards seems to make no sense. It generates no cash flow and serves no practical purpose. Warren Buffett has pointed out that we dig it out of one hole in the ground only to stick it in another, and anyone watching this from Mars would be very confused.
You can forget claims that it's "real" money. There's no such thing. Money is just an accounting device, a way of keeping track of how much each of us produces and consumes. Gold is a shiny and somewhat tacky looking metal that is malleable, durable and heavy. A recent research paper by Duke University's Campbell Harvey and co-author Claude Erb raised serious questions about most of the arguments in favor of gold as an investment.
But there's another way to look at gold: As the most liquid reserve in times of turmoil, or worse.
The big story of our era is not that the Spanish government is broke, nor is it that Paul Ryan apparently feels the need to embellish his running record. It's that the United States, which has dominated the world's economy for several lifetimes, is in relative decline.
As was first reported here in April of last year, according to International Monetary Fund calculations, the U.S. is on track to lose its status as the world's biggest economy -- when measured in real, purchasing-power terms -- to China by 2017.
We will soon be the first people in two hundred years to live in a world not dominated by either Pax Americana or Pax Britannica. This sort of changing of the guard has never been peaceful. The declines of the Spanish, French and British empires were all accompanied by conflict. The decline of British hegemony was a leading cause of the First and Second World Wars.
What will happen as the U.S. loses its preeminence?
Maybe this will turn out better than similar episodes in the past. Maybe the Chinese will embrace an open society and the rule of law. If you believe that, there is probably no reason to hold any gold.
On the other hand, we may be about to enter a much more turbulent and dangerous era of power politics and international competition.
Not long ago, world gold reserves were mainly in the hands of the U.S. and the Europeans, which accumulated their holdings during their centuries at the top. The U.S. has 75% of its currency reserves in gold. Many other first world powers have comparable proportions.
But that's beginning to change. According to the World Gold Council, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia are now in the top five. Western European countries have been selling gold. If the current financial crisis gets any worse, they may yet sell more.
Emerging markets have been buying. In most cases, gold remains a very small percentage of their total reserves. China, despite its recent buying, holds less than 2% of its currency reserves in gold.
But you have to wonder how long emerging countries will want to hold their reserves in any currency that is controlled by someone else. Vladimir Putin clearly doesn't want to. Gold now accounts for 9% of Russia's reserves, and that figure is rising.
The gold price has had a shakeout since peaking at around $1,900 an ounce a year ago. It fell as low as $1,566 in June. Since then, it has risen to $1,688.
But that shakeout has been exaggerated by the rally in the U.S. dollar over most of the past year. Put another way: Priced in euros, gold is nearly back to its old high. It's 1,343 euros per ounce, just shy of the 1,356 euro record set a year ago.
The most common means of buying gold is either in bullion or through an exchange-traded bullion fund such as the SPDR Gold Shares (GLD)
But you might also take a look at shares in gold-mining companies. They are at, or near, historic lows when compared with the gold price. Contrarians may take that as a buying signal.
The Philadelphia Gold & Silver Index, which tracks the stocks of precious-metal mining companies, stood at 170 on Tuesday -- a level first seen five years ago, in September, 2007, when gold itself was just $730 an ounce. Relative to gold itself, the Philly index is about 60% below the average levels seen since 1985.
Die-hard gold fans will tell you that the mining stocks involve all sorts of extra risks that you don't get with the metal. Companies can be mismanaged. Mining costs go up. Countries can wallop miners with windfall taxes.
They're right on all of the above. On the other hand, the equities are cheap and they do generate cash flow. Barrick Gold (ABX),
As ever, you pays your money and you takes your choice.