What’s the most precious metal – gold or platinum?
Ask most people, and they’ll say the answer’s obvious – platinum is the more valuable metal, hands down.
But in recent years, the answer hasn’t been at all clear cut. The price of platinum has regularly dipped below that of gold, sometimes substantially. Even now, gold and platinum are trading at roughly the same price.
This is an unusual situation. And we suspect it won’t last. Here’s why…
If you sit a bit of platinum and a bit of gold side by side, there’s not that much to tell them apart (other than the colour). They’re both shiny. They both make nice jewellery. They don’t rust. They’re both seen as valuable.
And platinum is also rarer than gold. So it seems to make sense that platinum would generally be the more pricey metal.
But in the past five years, this relationship has broken down. And it’s mainly down to the one critical difference between gold and platinum.
Gold is a monetary metal. It’s been used as a medium of exchange and a store of value for millennia. Its perceived value derives mainly from the idea that gold is money.
Platinum is an industrial metal. It has no history at all of being used as money. Its perceived value derives mainly from how much of it is needed by vehicle manufacturers at any given time.
So when people think the financial system is at risk of breaking down, they want gold. A broken financial system is not good news for trade or industry, which means they don’t want platinum.
This makes perfect sense. And given our own concerns about the global financial system, we’d advise you hold on to your gold.
But now could also be a good time to get hold of some platinum if you haven’t already.
Two-thirds of world platinum production comes from South Africa. Up until now the platinum companies, like the rest of the mining sector, have benefited from a large supply of relatively cheap labour. This has helped them to keep costs down.
However, it has also given them little incentive to invest in new equipment. As a result, pits and facilities have to use manual labour for tasks that are done by machine elsewhere.
And this has left the mining giants unprepared to deal with a change in the attitude of their workers. Decades of strong economic growth have raised expectations about wages. Trade unions are becoming increasingly assertive and more willing to strike for what they see as a fair wage.
Last summer a dispute over pay in Marikana ended in tragedy when a series of clashes between the police and strikers left 47 dead and 78 wounded.
The mining sector has tried a number of tactics. One option is to simply agree to pay more. After the deaths, the conglomerate Lonmin agreed last September to award hikes of up to 22%.
But others have simply decided to shut down production. In January, Anglo-American Platinum said it would close four large mines that account for nearly 10% of the world’s platinum supply. A huge public backlash has forced the company to postpone the closure. But it still plans to cut production substantially in the near future.
And even before this latest decision, South African production has been falling. Last year, total platinum output was the lowest since 2001 – 19% down from 2006.
As well as benefitting from falling supply, prices will be pushed up by rising demand for platinum in catalytic converters, which reduce emissions from car engines.
American consumers are finally starting to make the car purchases that they put off during the recession. Indeed, new car sales in the US are expected to be 18% higher in January than they were this time last year.
Meanwhile China, faced with growing anger over the dire air quality, is about to adopt much tougher car emissions standards.
Overall, Eric Sprott of Sprott Asset Management thinks that platinum demand due to cars (which account for just under 40% of overall consumption) will grow by 7% this year.
There’s another source of rising demand, as a result of platinum’s relative cheapness compared to gold. Jewellery already accounts for 30% of overall platinum consumption.
But there are signs that it is making inroads even into areas where gold has traditionally been far more popular. In India, sales of platinum jewellery have grown by 40-50% over the past year. Moves by the government to tax gold imports are only likely to encourage this shift.
There are two ways to take advantage of platinum’s strong prospects. If you want to make a direct bet, you can simply buy an exchange-traded fund which tracks the physical price.
However, if you’re willing to take on a little more risk, you might consider shares in a platinum mining company.
Contributing Writer, Money Morning
Publisher’s Note: This article originally appeared in MoneyWeek