Gold sparkles in COVID-19 shadow
Gold, prized by investors in times of crisis as a safe haven, is experiencing surging demand in the face of the coronavirus outbreak -- from both commodity traders and retail buyers.
The precious metal had forged a seven-year peak on commodity markets this month as traders sought shelter from the COVID-19 pandemic and its destructive economic impact.
The commodity has also rocketed as investors seek to guard against rising inflation -- with many central banks injecting immense amounts of liquidity into the financial system to counter virus fallout.
- 'Phone has not stopped' -
"The phone has not stopped ringing" because "demand has exploded", said Alessandro Soldati, boss of Gold Avenue, the online retail arm of Swiss refiner and ingots producer MKS PAMP Group.
Over the last three weeks, as the new coronavirus strain spread across the globe, Gold Avenue experienced more sales than during the entire final quarter of last year.
With most orders placed online, Gold Avenue has "all the tools" to help meet the rapid growth in demand, according to its chairman Omar Liess.
Some companies are encountering some issues meeting the sheer volume of demand. But the main problem is logistical -- because so many flights are cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Customers still however have the option of keeping their gold coins and bars in safes -- because trading companies usually offer such storage solutions.
And if they do want to take physical delivery of the glamorous precious metal, then customers face the prospect of a long wait.
US-based online precious metal retailer JM Bullion has warned its customers to expect delays of more than 15 days as a result of "extreme order volumes".
- Refineries hit by lockdown -
Gold had already soared in value in the London Bullion Market to reach a December 2012 peak of $1,703.39 per ounce on March 9.
It has since fallen on modest profit-taking but remains at an elevated level of about $1,600.
That has given a shot in the arm to retail prices -- and demand shows no sign of abating after the global death toll from the new coronavirus strain topped 20,000 this week.
"Demand (for gold) has risen significantly in the past three to four weeks," said Liam Sheasby, marketing chief at British online bullion firm BullionByPost.
Experts argue there is no shortage of gold at the moment, apart from for newly-minted coins -- but the situation is becoming more complex.
In Switzerland, gold refining titans PAMP, Valcambi and Argor-Heraeus -- which together represent one third of global production -- have temporarily halted operations at the request of the government.
At the same time, South Africa on Monday imposed a three-week lockdown, as the African continent's top gold producer grapples with COVID-19.
"The industry as a whole is affected" by lockdowns at key facilities, Omar Liess told AFP.
- 'Unprecedented crisis' -
The Britain-based World Gold Council industry body issued a gloomy warning about the ongoing long-term impact of coronavirus.
"We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis," WGC chief executive David Tait noted on Wednesday.
"I have worked at the heart of financial markets for over 30 years and thought I had seen it all: Black Monday, Asian currency crisis, the dotcom bubble bursting, and the global financial crisis. But this is different.
"We are reeling the wake of a health and economic shock which monetary and fiscal policy is ill-equipped to deal with. Like most asset classes, gold has been affected by widespread, rapid-fire asset sales and a dash for cash.
"Notwithstanding recent price volatility, I believe gold is as relevant as ever and will play an increasingly important role in investors' portfolios in the years to come."