COMMODITIES

The way a growing number of experts have it, the metal could fall significantly in the medium-term future, writes MoneyShow editor-at-large Howard R. Gold, who also can be found at The Independent Agenda.

The last decade has been a bonanza for investors smart or lucky enough to buy gold. From its April 2001 low of $256 an ounce, gold prices soared 640% to the September 2011 peak. While large US stocks slogged through a lost decade, gold returned 21% a year.

Investor interest, long dormant since the age of the gold bugs in the late 1970s, was rekindled as the SPDR Gold Trust ETF (GLD) offered a cheap, liquid way to own this most coveted of metals. Even high-profile hedge funds jumped aboard.

But lately, gold’s winning streak appears to have stalled. As I write this, gold is sitting on its 200-day moving average and sells 14% below its all-time dollar price high of $1,895 an ounce.

This week, the Dow and the S&P 500 have hit post-crisis highs, but gold prices keep tumbling. At Wednesday’s close, it changed hands at $1,635.70 an ounce.

Gold’s supporters remain steadfastly bullish. But some brave contrarians say the decade of gold is ending not with a bang, but a whimper. They even challenge the conventional wisdom that gold is destined to rise as long as central bankers keep printing money. If all that additional liquidity doesn’t turn into high inflation, why own gold at all?

Mark Williams raised those questions in an op-ed in the Financial Times last fall. He’s a former bank examiner and risk analyst who teaches at Boston University and wrote a book, Uncontrolled Risk, about the fall of Lehman Brothers.

“The last bull market for gold ended in 1980, when prices fell by 60%,” he wrote. “The bubble is popping again. This time, gold could drop to $700 an ounce, more than $1,000 below its peak.”

His reasoning? Economies and banks are slowly recovering from the crash and financial crisis. The Greek debt deal averted a major meltdown in Europe. And despite central banks’ alleged “moneyprinting,” we haven’t seen the inflation that has accompanied big runs by gold in the past.

“Gold is a hedge against inflation,” Williams told me in an interview. “You’ve seen a run up over the last decade and there’s no inflation to speak of.”

Technically, he’s right. From 2001 to 2011, the consumer price index rose on average 2.4% a year, and never topped 4% growth even in 2008, when oil and commodity prices soared briefly.

By contrast, the CPI rose by an average 7.9% annually during gold’s last great bull market from 1971 to 1980, and there were three years when inflation exceeded 10%.

Ah, ask the gold bulls, but won’t all the money the central banks issued to save the banking system eventually cause inflation, if not hyperinflation?

The Federal Reserve increased its balance sheet by $2 trillion in its various rounds of quantitative easing, which involved buying Treasuries and other government securities. That’s led to a similar increase in the reserves banks hold, which is why economist James Hamilton of UC San Diego wrote: "The Fed is creating reserves as opposed to printing money.”

“If you back out those excess reserves, you’re looking at a monetary growth rate at 3% to 4%,” said Professor John Tatom of Indiana State University.

Meanwhile, the velocity of money—the rate at which money circulates—has plunged to its lowest levels in half a century, indicating the money sitting in banks isn’t sloshing through the economy. That has offset most potential inflationary effects of the increased reserves.

The European Central Bank recently emulated the Fed, offering €1 trillion in three-year long-term refinancing operations (LTRO) to help repair European banks’ tattered balance sheets. Don’t expect those banks to start lending a lot of money soon, either, as they and their US counterparts must hold more on their books to comply with tough new capital requirements.

NEXT: Waiting for QE3

Tickers Mentioned: Tickers: GLD, CSCO, JDSU