The world’s wealthiest people have responded to economic worries by buying bars of gold, sometimes by the tonne, and moving assets out of the financial system, bankers catering to the very rich said on Monday.
UBS executive Josef Stadler told the Reuters Global Private Banking Summit that fears of a double-dip downturn had boosted the appetite for physical bullion as well as mining company shares and exchange-traded funds.
« They don’t only buy ETFs or futures, they buy physical gold, » said Stadler, who runs the Swiss bank’s services for clients with assets of at least US$50 million to invest.
UBS is recommending their top-tier clients hold 7-10 percent of their assets in precious metals like gold, which is on course for its tenth consecutive yearly gain and traded at around US$1,317 an ounce on Monday.
In a sign of the uncertain times, some clients go further.
We had a clear example of a couple buying over a tonne of gold … and carrying it to another place, » Stadler said.
At today’s prices, that shipment would be worth about US$42 million.
Julius Baer’s chief investment officer for Asia is also recommending that wealthy investors park some of their assets in gold as a defensive stance following a string of lacklustre U.S. data and amid concerns about currency weakness.
« I see gold as an insurance, » Van Anantha-Nageswaran said. « I recommend 10 percent as minimum in portfolios and anything more than that to be used for trading purposes, to respond to short-term over-bought or over-sold signals. »
Billionaire financier George Soros, echoing comments from investment guru Warren Buffett, last month described gold as the « ultimate bubble » because it is costly to dig out of the ground and has no real value except its market price.
But rising prices for the precious metal have in themselves generated more and more demand from investors looking for a way to hedge themselves against a fresh recession. Gold bears no yield and is uncompetitive in an environment of rising interest rates.
The uneasy outlook for inflation, hard currencies and global growth has triggered a five-fold increase in a physical gold fund launched by Pictet one year ago, the Swiss private bank said.
UBS’s Stadler said the precious metal had become a staple of investors’ portfolios, despite questions about whether it makes for a smart long-term investment.
« If you talk to ultra-high net worth individuals that level of uncertainty has never been higher in the last two, three, four years, » he said. « If they ask me ‘is inflation going up or are we entering a deflationary cycle?’, I don’t know. But obviously nobody knows. »
But not all bankers are recommending exposure to gold.
Andreas Wolfer, head of private banking at UniCredit Group, attributed the run-up to the price of gold to frayed investor nerves after the 2008 financial crisis as well as concerns about sovereign debt in the euro zone.
« We have seen it but we have not overweighted it in our asset allocation, » Wolfer told the Reuters Summit in Geneva, which has emerged as a major trading hub for precious metals as well as other physical commodities.
« We strongly believe in an asset allocation having a clear and diversified portfolio, which sounds a bit boring but in the end it brings the best returns, » Wolfer said.