As fans of Superman comics and/or Seinfeld know, Bizarro World is a land where up is down, black is white, good is bad and so on. In other words, it's sort of like the world I found myself this week at the Denver Gold Group's San Francisco gold forum. Whereas equity and fixed-income traders foresee only positive outcomes from the Federal Reserve's aggressive monetary policy, gold advocates see Alan Greenspan behind the wheel of an out-of-control vehicle headed for a steep turn. Where equity optimists spy salutary effects of a weaker dollar, gold bulls envision a crumbling currency leading to higher inflation, buoying the yellow metal. That's perhaps a bit dramatic, but the salient point is that recent gains by stocks and Treasuries have done little to dissuade gold adherents from the righteousness of their path. Certainly, the rally in financial assets hasn't dampened the bullishness of John Hathaway, manager of the ( TGLDX) Tocqueville Gold fund, whose speech was the highlight of Wednesday's session. (Full disclosure, I have a long position in this fund, which is up 0.4% year to date after rising 83% in 2002.) Gold is the "best kept secret" in investing, Hathaway declared, suggesting gold's five-year outperformance vs. the S&P 500 is just the beginning of a long-term secular upswing that could last as long as 20 years, judging by past cycles. The bottom line is that Hathaway thinks gold can go to $1000 per ounce before its current bull move ends. The most important factor driving gold is that monetary policy is being driven by deflationary fears, Hathaway said. The Fed is expanding the money supply and talking about "unusual methods" for combating deflation, as embodied by Fed governor Ben Bernanke's "printing press" comment last November. "The more truculent the Fed is
regarding deflation, the better prospects are for concern about paper assets," Hathaway said. "In the aftermath of a bubble, there is no quick fix." (In other words, by trying to forestall the business cycle, the Fed is only going to make matters worse for the economy and paper assets.)
The gold fund manager believes the Fed's "reflation" efforts will exacerbate the dollar's decline and ultimately result in higher interest rates, eroding the appeal of equities as well as Treasuries. Loose fiscal policies -- and accompanying high federal and current account deficits -- will also contribute to the dollar's weakness and accompanying inflationary pressures. Hathaway didn't discuss this, but others believe gold will also benefit if the Fed is unsuccessful in combating deflation, because investors' faith in the central bank will be decimated.
Negative sentiment: In 1998, The Financial Times declared "Gold is Dead," which Hathaway said is analogous to Business Week's infamous "Death of Equities" cover in August 1979. Sentiment about gold has improved, especially in the past 18 months, but most on Wall Street still dismiss it as a relic. Supply: Even as gold prices tumbled from 1987 until 2001, the supply of gold production expanded by about 5%, Hathaway observed. Currently, mine supply is declining because of the closure of older mines, environmental obstacles to permitting for new mines and industry consolidation. He also believes central bank selling, which persistently pressured gold in the late 1990s, will decline going forward as policymakers realize they were selling at the bottom. Notably, a common theme among conference presenters was how companies are getting rid of hedging programs in order to increase their leverage to gold prices. Demand: The three-year bear market in stocks heightened investor demand for so-called alternative assets. Ultimately, asset allocators will move more toward tangible assets and view gold in the same regard as timber and/or real estate, Hathaway forecast. Because the market cap of the gold industry is so small, even marginal demand by pension funds and others of that ilk will have a huge impact on the sector. A crucial element in the demand story is the World Gold Council-sponsored exchange-traded gold fund, which will allow investors to purchase a proxy for physical gold and "bring gold into the mainstream," Hathaway said. Trading in the gold ETF -- officially the Equity Gold Shares (GLD) -- is pending Securities and Exchange Commission approval. Assuming that occurs, individuals will be able to trade gold as easily as, say, shares of Cisco (CSCO). China's liberalization of laws that had prevented citizens from owning gold is another key source of demand. Gary B. Smith made a similar observation about its ascending triangle. Finally, Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold ( FCX) was the suggestion of John Burbank, managing partner at Passport Capital, a San Francisco-based hedge fund that is long the stock. Burbank's firm manages $100 million and was up 6% year to date after gaining 22% in 2002, both net of fees. Because it is the world's largest copper producer, Freeport McMoran is often overlooked by gold investors. Its shares have also traded at a discount to peers because its main operations are in Indonesia, not exactly a bastion of political stability. But if investors can look past those concerns, "this is a great way to be long for basic business reasons -- free cash flow over $500 million annually and good leverage to higher gold prices," said Burbank, who believes Freeport McMoran may soon increase its dividend. On the most basic level, Freeport McMoran is the world's lowest-cost producer of both copper and gold. That makes it an intriguing play for those who see commodities being at the beginning of a long-term bull cycle, regardless of recent action in financial assets.