The plunging price of gold is an expression of hope by the markets

Gold is the ultimate hedge against bad stuff. If people are selling it, maybe things aren't so bad.

One of the big market stories of the day is the continued decline of precious metals. The price of gold is almost 20 per cent off its late 2012 high of $1,794 per oz, and a huge chunk of that fall has happened in the last two weeks – this morning alone, it's down 3.8 per cent and is still falling.

It's always tricky to read anything into market movements, unless they're as obvious a boom-and-bust cycle as something like Bitcoin, and that goes double for something like gold. It, and precious metals in general, have semi-unique fundamentals, because nearly all of their worth is tied up in the collective agreement that they are valuable. A bar of gold is worth money because everyone agrees it is worth money; contrast that with a barrel of oil, which can be used to make things and provide energy, or a share in a company, which might pay dividends.

But the price of gold isn't just driven by unpredictable speculation. The whole thing is wrapped up in beliefs about the nature of fiat currency, inflation, and macroeconomics. Joe Weisenthal explains:

On one hand you have established economists, who believe the government has tools at its disposal to address a crisis. These tools include deficit spending and a violent expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Conversely you have critics who slam the arrogance of economists and central planners, and who have predicted that all of this economic acrobatics would result in an economic collapse, hyperinflation, and an explosion in the price of gold. Gold is important to their worldview, because it represents a quasi-money that’s not tied to any government or central bank.

Investing in gold is a rejection of government money and finance. Money flowing into gold-related assets represents a belief that rocks (however shiny they are) are a better place to invest than human endeavors (like stocks).

You can see this belief reflected in the tendency sites like ZeroHedge have towards showing things priced "in gold". So, for instance, the S&P priced in gold has been shrinking since 2000: the idea is that gold is still the only real money, and must therefore be the point from which all other observations are made. (Paul Kedrosky took this to its logical conclusion, charting the price of gold in gold)

But regardless of the reasons for the collective agreement that gold holds value, it does. And that means it has some properties as an investment vehicle. Traditionally, it's thought to be good to own in periods of high inflation and poor growth in the value of the stock market, and Paweł Morski points out what the logical conclusion of that is:

Gold – unlike bank deposits, equity or bonds, or even banknotes – is separate from the real economy: it’s what you invest in when you want to take a breather from what’s happening in the real economy. That’s actually only a sensible thing to do in pretty extreme circumstances. Gold returns are utterly crushed by equity markets in the long term – to a really astonishing degree for those economies where we have continuous equity markets.

Compared with shares in pre-revolutionary China or pre-war Poland, gold returns look pretty good. Gold is less an index of how confident we are that our leaders a) want to b) know how to do the right thing as it is an index of how sure we are that they won’t completely and utterly screw the pooch.

Also worth quoting is Morksi's absolute belter, because just look at it:

I have nothing to say about the Gold Standard other than it’s the obvious solution for those who feel the main problems with the euro are that it’s too flexible and covers too few countries.

Gold is an oddity, but the people who buy it say something very real about faith in the economic system. It may not be particularly good for hedging against downsides within that system, but as one of the few ways people can hedge against the total breakdown of order, it has a purpose. The continued slide, therefore, is a rare sign of hope in these beleaguered days. Some people, at least, think we're further from armageddon than we used to be.

Gold bars. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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