"People treated gold like the cure for everything," says James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis. "If you were worried about a depression, buy gold. If you were worried about inflation, buy gold."
Fear of economic collapse started the gold rally, and greed accelerated it. By 2009, speculators and others looked to ride gold's popularity. Hedge funds and other big investors piled in.
Anxiety and gold prices kept climbing in tandem. Right after Standard & Poor's stripped the U.S. of its top credit rating in August 2011, the price peaked above $1,900.
Instead of buying gold bricks and stashing them in their basement, many hedge funds and big investors turned to buying gold exchange-traded funds, which trade on markets like stocks. The most popular offering, the SPDR Gold Trust, attracted big investors like John Paulsen, who made billions betting on the mortgage meltdown, and George Soros.As money poured in, the SPDR Gold Trust grew into the second-largest exchange-traded fund behind the SPDR S&P 500, which follows the stock market. And its supply of gold swelled from 780 metric tons at the start of 2009 to 1,353 metric tons in December. But now it looks like the fast-money has soured on the yellow metal. George Soros slashed his stake in the SPDR Gold Trust fund by 55 percent at the end of last year, according to the most recent regulatory filing. Judging by the numbers, it looks like others decided to jump out of the market at the same time. Hedge funds and big investors pulled $8.7 billion out of gold funds last month, according to EPFR Global, a firm that tracks where big investors put their money. EPFR says it was the biggest monthly withdrawal out of gold funds since the firm started collecting data in 2000. The SPDR Gold Trust unloaded 12 percent of its gold in April, selling 146 metric tons.