The revelation on this blog, actually sourced from what appears to be a reliable story in the Gulf News, the leading regional newspaper, that Saudi Arabia has spent a total of $3.5 billion on gold over the past two weeks has naturally attracted huge worldwide interest.
I cannot verify the source but all I can say is that this has the hallmarks of a genuine story, based on my 25 years in financial journalism. First, it was buried on an inside page and the amount was given in UAE currency later in the story - hardly the action of somebody looking to manipulate the gold price, more an indication that the sub-editors did not understand the importance of this story.
Second, this is how the best stories emerge from Saudi Arabia - the market is not very transparent but insiders do notice big changes and pass this information on, and it surfaces as well sourced rumor. I am afraid this is about as good as it gets in the Middle East.
Truth in rumors?
After 9/11, we had rumors about chartered 747s flying full of gold and dollars back to the Kingdom to avoid the increased scrutiny of US regulators. Was it true? Real estate here is said to have boomed on the back of this new money - that certainly happened, did the transfer? We do not know for sure.
So what is going on? By whom and why are these gold purchased being made? Again we can only indulge in informed speculation - nobody is ever going to give an on the record comment on this.
However, we do know that the Saudi stock market has crashed over the past two weeks. There has been an enormous amount of money cashed out. The obvious source of the money for gold purchases has to be that money.
The problem for Saudis is that by cashing out of local stocks they get their own riyals in exchange, and riyals are effectively US dollars due to the currency fixed link. The US dollar is presently high, so diversifying into another asset class makes sense.
But what do you buy? What is safe these days? Dubai villas, perhaps but the rest of regional real estate is crashing? US stocks - you must be joking?
I think some of the conspiracy theorists are wide of the mark. People love to come up with elaborate rationales for actions. It is laughable to see Saudi Arabians rushing to buy gold as a conspiracy to bring down the West. The West has brought that on itself, and the Saudis are just trying to find an effective shelter for their wealth from that collapse.
Gold and silver are precious metals with a limited supply that retain their value over time. Also if we are in a repeat of the late 1970s, as this author believes, then cash and gold are the safe havens, with silver probably the best of all, if very volatile.
Therefore, my lesson to draw from the Saudi gold rush is that very much higher gold prices are coming and investors in the Kingdom are making a logical choice ahead of the global pack. If you can not beat them I would join them and preserve your capital.
Incidentally, what I would like to know is who is buying? The report in Gulf News makes it sound like the broad mass of local investors, not the government, and that would explain why such a report has surfaced. If it was the government we would not have heard about it.
So this is just a local flight to a safe haven asset class by people panicking about plunging local and global stocks. But $3.5 billion in two weeks is a big shift in demand for gold in a short period.