Gold spiked Thursday to its highest level since President Donald Trump took the oath of office. February COMEX gold futures touched highs of $1224.20 an ounce before calming down somewhat: the precious metal was trading at $1215.10 by the afternoon, up .8%.
Two big factors have been driving gold's surge in recent weeks: political instability brought on by Trump's chaotic first days and unanswered questions about what the Federal Reserve plans to do in 2017. Wednesday's cryptic Fed statement seemed to put only two interest rate hikes in play for the year instead of the widely-expected three.
One day earlier, Trump and his top trade adviser, UC-Irvine economics professor Peter Navarro, talked tough on currency, which lifted gold. Navarro accused Germany of manipulating the Euro, while Trump said that other countries were devaluing their currencies.
No one knows for sure how Trump will approach trade policy, which has big implications for the entire global economy. He's already pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Whether Trump supports House Republicans' proposal for a border-adjusted tax on imports depends on the day. Tariffs on imports from Mexico, China and the rest of the world have been floated. A renegotiation or outright withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) remains on the table.
"That's probably the biggest risk because we can see it coming and it's a lot more measurable," Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Rob Chang said of the possibility of a U.S. retreat from free trade. "Once they announce the cancellation of free trade with Mexico, for example, we can figure out roughly what that does in terms of the impact to both economies and how much costs will rise and how much forex will change. That will certainly change gold, likely much higher, off news like that."
Tracking the daily reports out of the Trump White House is enough to drive even the most seasoned consumers of news mad, given the tendency of many on social media to react hysterically to even the blandest of the administration's goings-on and the frequent oft-unreliable leaks from anonymous sources.
It may be as difficult to forecast gold moves in reaction to U.S. policy as it is to determine what those policies are.
"[Our thesis is] that the on/off uncertainty patterns will result in on/off moves in gold as other assets (namely equities) fluctuate with presidential tweets and changing market interpretations of both new and old U.S. policies," RBC strategist Chris Louney wrote in a recent research note.
The consensus expectation is that rising interest rates will put the brakes on any Trump-inflicted gold acceleration, considering that the Fed raised rates for the first time in a year in December and more hikes are indeed coming. However, as Chang pointed out, gold rose 8.3% to $1128/oz in the 12 months following the 2015 rate hike and has performed well in an environment of consistent interest rate hikes.
"I argue the reason interest rates go up is that inflation expectations are high," Chang said. "In those situations, gold actually does well."