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.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.