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The past few years have seen their fair share of economic uncertainty. From 40-year high inflation and mortgage rates that have soared to levels we hadn’t experienced since 2008’s Great Recession, to market volatility and pessimistic investor sentiment, there has been no shortage of struggles across the U.S.
This has convinced many investors to seek out safe-haven assets like commodities in order to protect their money. With macroeconomic and market conditions like those mentioned above, one commodity in particular is again gaining popularity as a store of value: gold.
But what drives the price of gold? The factors that do can be confusing and conflicting. While other commodities are mostly driven by supply and demand, gold is often affected strongly by the psychological effects of economic downturns.
Keep reading to learn about the factors affecting the value of this precious metal, as well as reasons to invest in gold.
What affects the price of gold?
Gold prices are affected by numerous economic factors. The following determinants demonstrate the reasons gold could skyrocket given certain economic conditions.
Value of the U.S. dollar
Gold is generally a dollar-denominated asset, meaning the value of gold is priced in U.S. dollars. Dollar-denominated assets typically have an inverse relationship with the value of the U.S. dollar. Therefore, if the value of the dollar decreases, the value of gold will increase and vice versa.
In situations where the value of the dollar decreases, investors are able to buy less gold per dollar due to decreased purchasing power, which intrinsically increases the value of the precious metal. By extension, during periods of high inflation, gold historically remains stable or increases in price, proving its value as a safe-haven asset.
If the exchange rates of the U.S. dollar decrease relative to other currencies, investors outside the U.S. will be able to buy more gold with their currency, which can also drive up demand and gold prices.
Demand for gold
Gold demand is another factor that can influence gold prices, and a few industries directly affect interest in buying the precious metal.
Jewelry is one of the most common ways people know how to buy gold. As the demand for jewelry increases, so too can the price of gold.
However, jewelry is typically considered one of the weaker drivers of gold prices since many people buy jewelry and keep it for years.
Demand from gold exchange-traded funds (ETFs)
If you know how to buy stocks, you're likely familiar with the concept of ETFs. Gold exchange-traded funds are ETFs that invest in gold bullion or companies that mine gold. These ETFs combine some of the best benefits of investing, offering both broad industry exposure and the stability of gold.
Demand driven by gold ETFs has a similar effect on gold prices as other types of demand. The value of the precious metal can increase according to how many people invest in gold ETFs.
Demand for industrial applications
Gold is used for many industrial and production applications, like electronics, healthcare and space exploration. If demand increases in the industries that use significant amounts of gold, the value of gold may increase as more is needed to produce goods and complete services that rely on the precious metal.
Gold is a finite resource. Therefore, prospecting and mining physical gold is increasingly more difficult and more expensive. As demand outpaces supply, its price increases.
Whether or not peak gold has been reached is a point of contention. However, production has plateaued in the last seven years, and some experts estimate that by 2050, mining gold could be unsustainable.
While the precious metal can be melted and repurposed numerous times, much of the world’s gold is owned in the form of jewelry that remains out of circulation for lengthy periods. As gold gets harder to find, it will get more expensive.
The relationship between interest rates and gold prices is a bit complicated. In general, they have an inverse relationship. Therefore, gold prices rise as interest rates fall, and gold prices fall as interest rates rise.
However, as recent history has proven, it’s not a direct correlation. In its attempt to quell runaway inflation, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates at 10 consecutive meetings beginning in March 2022. Since then, the price of gold has twice challenged its all-time high and gained over 7% in the first half of 2023.
Typically, though, when interest rates rise, it signals that the economy is strong. Under these circumstances, sentiment can prove bullish and investors may feel confident purchasing higher risk assets like stocks. If demand for other assets increases, gold and precious metal demand decreases and prices will subsequently fall.
On the other hand, other economic factors — like poor consumer confidence or weak job reports — could signal investors to stay away from higher risk assets even in a high-interest-rate environment, meaning you wouldn’t see the expected effect on gold prices.
Overall, interest rates can have an inverse effect on gold prices, but only when paired with certain economic factors.
Geopolitical factors may have a positive effect on gold pricing, which means that the value of gold will move in the same direction as geopolitical tension. Since gold is seen as a safe-haven asset, investors may turn to it during troubling times in an attempt to protect their money. Therefore, if there is a geopolitical threat, gold values may increase. That’s precisely what happened in the first quarter of 2022, when the Russia-Ukraine conflict helped gold gain 6%.
That said, geopolitical factors may not be as strong a factor as many think. Gold is typically associated with the U.S. economy, so overseas tensions and other events may not affect gold values as strongly as internal conflict or domestic monetary policy.
When it comes to gold and geopolitical tensions, the old adage, “Buy the rumor, sell the news,” can apply. Investors tend to buy gold before a crisis occurs and then sell it to make profits once the situation unfolds. For example, gold prices may increase when there are rumors of impending conflict, but the price may stagnate or even decrease after war actually breaks out.
Lastly, some geopolitical situations are seen as having positive effects on global order, like military action that protects the U.S. economy. In these situations, investors may not see opportunity in gold, so they will stick with higher-risk investments.
Who determines the price of gold?
Numerous factors influence gold pricing, so no one person or organization is fully responsible for setting prices. However, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) publishes gold prices twice a day via the ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA). The IBA consists of multiple banks, an oversight committee and a panel of internal and external chair members. The IBA sets gold spot prices and gold fixed prices based on supply and demand as well as the gold futures derivative markets.
The major derivative markets include the Commodity Exchange (COMEX) in the U.S. and the LBMA in the U.K. The COMEX and LBMA make futures contracts with buyers that agree to pay a certain price for gold that they will receive at a specific time in the future. Combined with supply and demand information, the IBA can determine the spot price, which is the market price of unrefined gold. The IBA then sets a gold price to publish as the LBMA Gold Price, or the London Gold Fix.
How volatile is gold?
The gold market is typically seen as a safe haven with little volatility, which is why buying gold to balance your portfolio is one of the most common tips for investors.
In general, you’ll find that gold is less volatile in the long term, which is why it could make a good investment to protect long-term funds, like retirement accounts. However, it can be volatile in the short term. Other asset classes, like stocks and bonds, tend to have more volatility during unpredictable economic and market conditions. But gold has a relatively indirect relationship between price and volatility because investors typically use it as a safe haven during economic turmoil.
There are many factors that play into the ability to make money from investing in gold. Remember that — aside from a few ETFs — when you invest in the precious metal, there are no dividends or interest earned on gold investments. So outside of those few ETFs, the only way to make money from gold is to sell it when the price rises.
As part of a diversified portfolio, it can serve as a hedge during economic downturns or periods of elevated inflation and market volatility. So investors shouldn't be too concerned if there is a temporary drop in gold prices. Historically, they tend to rise again after a relatively short period, which can continue to increase your long-term returns.
Reasons why gold is often referred to as a safe-haven investment
A safe-haven investment is an investment that has no correlation or a negative correlation with other markets. For example, gold is often seen as a safe haven because it tends to move in opposition to stocks and bonds, thereby serving as a hedge against losses in those asset classes. So is gold a good investment? Here are some reasons why the precious metal is considered a relatively safe investment.
It diversifies your investment portfolio
A diversified portfolio should include investments that have no correlation or negative correlations to each other, like the relationship between gold and stocks. If you have a well-diversified portfolio, you lower the risk of suffering big losses all at once.
For example, a major economic event may cause you to lose money in stocks. However, your gold values may increase, counterbalancing your losses. Even if gold values don’t go up, they’re less likely to lose value at the same time as stocks, so you’re unlikely to experience big losses across both asset classes.
It hedges against inflation
Inflation is one of the most common reasons for an increase in gold prices. Therefore, gold has historically been a good investment option during times when the prices of goods and services are rising. As the U.S. dollar loses value, investors tend to turn to gold, which subsequently increases its demand and value. Investors may also view gold as a good way to store funds for the future when they need extra money and the cost of living has increased.
It’s a highly liquid asset
If you find yourself short on cash after investing in gold, you should have no problem selling your gold investment, which is why the precious metal is considered a highly liquid asset. Buying and selling gold online, like with gold ETFs or through platforms offering gold bars and coins, also sees high volume.
Regardless of the type of gold investment you hold, there’s no shortage of opportunities to find buyers. While physical gold may be slightly more challenging to sell because of logistics like transportation and storage, it still tends to be highly liquid.
A number of factors are responsible for driving price of gold, including:
- The value of the U.S. dollar
- Demand for gold, including jewelry, gold ETFs and industrial needs
- Gold production and supply
- Interest rates and other economic factors
- Geopolitical factors and their impact on the U.S. economy
The relationship between these economic factors and gold’s value can be ambiguous since there are no set rules determining how gold prices rise or fall.
Investing can be subject to emotions, so the psychological effects of economic uncertainty often play a role in people turning to safe-haven investments like gold. Therefore, it’s difficult to predict how investors will react to certain economic factors, or how those reactions will impact gold prices
Spot prices for gold are set by the IBA based on supply and demand, economic factors and futures contracts. While gold is typically seen as a stable asset, it can experience some volatility in certain short-term situations.
However, in the long term, gold can be considered a safe investment. You may want to consider buying gold to diversify your portfolio, hedge against inflation and to own highly liquid assets during times of need.