World’s rich struggle to get hold of gold in ‘crazy’ moment

The Mont Cervin Palace in Zermatt, a tourist hub where private banks service the city and maintain underground bunkers and storage facilities for gold at the foothills of the Swiss Alps. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Ludwig Karl is stuck at home, worried about his elderly relatives. All the while his business is booming.

He’s a board member of Swiss Gold Safe Ltd., an operator of high-security vaults in the Alps that’s storing growing sums of precious metals for wealthy foreigners as the Covid-19 pandemic worsens. The company usually helps customers buy gold, but governments have closed scores of businesses amid the crisis, making it increasingly difficult for people to get their hands on the physical product.

“It’s absolutely crazy what’s going on,” Karl said. “Right now, if somebody wants to buy gold, I wish them all the best in finding it. Most of the bullion dealers are closed.”

Buyers have come back into the market this week on the back of aggressive stimulus measures that reduced pressure on funding

Switzerland’s refining industry, a major international hub for processing gold into bars and coins, has largely shut because of efforts to contain the global virus. Grounded flights are disrupting plans to transport bullion around the world and gold mining firms are scaling back activities, decelerating the precious metals industry as demand for gold increases.

“The whole supply chain is getting tighter and tighter,” said Debra Thomson, a global sales director for gold at IBV International Vaults, which offers safe-deposit boxes and the purchase of precious metals worldwide. “The last time I saw this amount of chaos in the market was with 9/11.”

Private investors typically buy gold bars of 1 kilogram or less, far smaller than those traded between banks. The dearth of supply is most impacting the lower range of the market.

Those still wanting to buy and store smaller gold bars will have to wait for the refineries to open. Three of the world’s biggest — Valcambi SA, Argor-Heraeus SA and the refinery unit of MKS PAMP Group — are based in Ticino, the Swiss canton bordering northern Italy that is the worst hit nationwide from the virus.

“We’re still selling, but we’ve got to defer deliveries,” Thomson said. “If somebody is prepared to do that, we can still trade. Otherwise the trading is limited to minimal stocks.”

Gold prices have whipsawed this month as some investors sold precious metals to meet margin calls during the worst market rout in more than a decade. Others sold to buy assets such as the dollar. Buyers have come back into the market this week on the back of aggressive stimulus measures that reduced pressure on funding.

Spot gold has gained nearly 8% so far this week to trade near $1,617 an ounce. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said that bullion is probably at an inflection point and it’s time to buy. Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris said this week that he’s raising his stakes in mining shares and veteran investor Mark Mobius noted this is not the time to sell the metal.

“People should have gold and this may be a good time to increase holdings in gold — in fact I’m thinking that myself,” Mobius told Bloomberg TV in an interview.

It’s tougher for those looking to get their hands on the actual metal. The pandemic is even creating a shortage for some of the most popular coins, such as the Krugerrand from South Africa and the Maple Leaf from Canada. That means people are now taking a no-frills approach when it comes to purchases.

“A buyer would have been fussy about the coins they want two months ago,” said Seamus Fahy, co-founder of Merrion Vaults, which holds gold in security facilities across the U.K. and Ireland. “Now they will buy anything they can get their hands on. They are desperate to get physical gold.”

(By Ben Stupples, with assistance from Jack Farchy, Elena Mazneva, Ranjeetha Pakiam and Stefania Spezzati)

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