James Moore: Gold rush may be over as steep price dive sees the metal lose its lustre

Outlook: Since hitting a high on 6 September, the gold price is now off by 20 per cent. The silver price has slumped nearly 50 per cent
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The Independent Online

It's not glittering any more and we shouldn't be all that surprised by the end of a gold rush that will see casualties, good and bad. It seems that the modern day gold rush could at last be coming to an end, at least for the moment. Long touted as a "safe haven in times of trouble" by excitable commentators who really ought to know better, the commodity has lost its lustre in recent weeks.

The price has taken a steepdive and since hitting a recordhigh on 6 September is off by fully 20 per cent.

It wasn't grizzled old prospectors with battered looking pans who joined the rush that has gathered momentum over the past four years as the price was chased higher and higher. It was more sharp-suited hedge fund managers together with quite a few middle-class people desperate to get on to what they thought was a hot investment tip.

It will be interesting to hear what those peddling gold-linked securities and even savings accounts to those middle-class people are saying to them now. Given all the turmoil of the past few years it is astonishing that people still don't appear to have grasped the fact that investment bubbles tend to get popped.

The reality is that gold is anything but a safe haven. Like any commodity it tends to be highly volatile. Unlike other commodities, however, it has status of an investment class as well as a raw material. Which means its price has quite a bit more speculative fuel available to heat the price than its peers. Fuel that can also send it into a tailspin when withdrawn.

And withdrawn it has been. The fundamentals are no longer so friendly. Gold is not so much a safe haven as it is a hedge against inflation and a weak dollar.

Inflationary pressures in the US appear to be easing off and the dollar has been showing some strength. Despite the sour taste the Tea Party casts over US politics and its members' disgraceful behaviour in Congress, a lot of "safety money" has nonetheless been heading back to what has always really been its favourite place: the dollar and US Treasuries (even if the yield is pitiful).

Still, one side benefit of gold's recent slide could be to slow the relentless and rather depressing rise of the rather sleazy gold-buying industry, driven by pawn shop chains, which has made a mint by slyly offering what looks like a good price for things like unwanted jewellery when it is anything but.

Although given the way pawn shops have flourished in Britain during the recession, they might fancy chancing their arm at internationalising as the eurozone's politicians continue to wring their hands and duck difficult decisions putting the whole world at risk of a second, and much deeper, downturn.

Interestingly, despite another factor driving gold down being hedge funds selling up to cover losses elsewhere, the precious metal's fall is as nothing to the tumble taken by its sister silver, which is off by nearly a half since the start of the year. Copper has also taken a nose dive.

The latter two are far more influenced by the economic outlook than gold, given their use in a wide variety of industrial processes. It's not as if there aren't enough prophets of doom out there, but their decline is really rather worrying. It ought to concentrate minds.

Sorry Sergio, but the only way is down

Welcome, then Sergio Ermotti to the dubious honour of holding what could be the worst "big job" in banking. At least for the moment.

Mr Ermotti couldn't have enjoyed a much better start as he got his feet under his nice new desk. He has been greeted with a veritable "hurrah" from the markets as, having had the weekend to digest the news of his appointment, investors got stuck into the bank's shares while analysts filled the ether with lots of glowing comments about what a good chap Mr Ermotti is.

So perhaps he's entitled to a smile, at least for a little while. Because there won't be much time to smile in future.

After it seemed as if Mr Ermotti's predecessor Oswald Grübel had steadied a ship that was listing, if not sinking, UBS is once again in a mess thanks to the scandal that has seen charges laid against one of its traders, Kweku Adoboli.

Mr Ermotti, who is from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and is a former investment banker, presumably wants the job full time. You can understand why some might be reluctant to see another investment banker appointed to run UBS given the fact investment banking is what caused its biggest problems.

But, then, it probably takes an investment banker to fix an investment bank. Then, maybe, to shrink it. And given the markets' reaction yesterday to his appointment as acting boss, the bank's other directors ought to take heed.

The rather cringeworthy UBS advertising campaign uses the image of Everest conquerors Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, gushing about their close relationship and how UBS uses that as the model for how it wants to deal with its clients.

Mr Ermotti's colleagues on the UBS board really need to be in close harmony given the state of the business they steward, but tensions have been slopping over into the media and that's not good.

So watch out Mr Ermotti. You've got a mountain to climb, my friend. And that's not such an easy thing to do if you have a bunch of people behind you who are keen to stick an ice axe in your back – as often seems to be the case in banking.