Arnd Wiegmann and Lisa Jucca
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Sealed off by grey concrete walls and barbed wire, the workmen in protective glasses and steel-toed boots at this smelter cannot work fast enough to meet demand from the nervous rich for gold.
This refinery near Lake Lugano in the Alps is running day and night as people worried about recession rush to switch their assets into something that may hold its value.
“I have been in the gold business for 30 years and I have never experienced anything like this,” said Bernhard Schnellmann, director for precious metal services at the refiner Argor-Heraeus, one of the world’s three largest.
“Production has dramatically increased since the middle of the year. We cannot cope with demand,” said Schnellman, wearing a gold watch on his wrist.
Spot gold hit a record $1,030.80 an ounce on March 17. It fell below $700 in late October, partly because investors sold their holdings to cover losses in equity and bond markets hit by the credit crisis, and is now around $830 an ounce.
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The trigger for the price to rise again could come from a much weaker dollar, making gold cheaper for holders of other currencies, and a renewed aversion to paper assets as governments and central banks pump large amounts of cash into the economy, stoking inflation.
Smoke billows as the molten gold, like glowing butter, is poured. To cool it, the worker drops it into water. It hisses as it hits. Once hardened in moulds, the gold bars are embossed with the refinery’s seal. Workers wearing white gloves stack them into boxes like domino pieces.
Though Switzerland is not a gold miner, it is home to some of the world’s largest refineries, which process an estimated 40 percent of all newly mined gold.
Argor-Heraeus is part-owned by the Austrian Mint and a subsidiary of Germany’s Commerzbank. Commercial and central banks are its chief customers and it says it processes some 350-400 tonnes of gold and 350 tonnes of silver per year.
Customers buying gold bars, which can weigh more than 10 kg each, have to wait roughly a month, taking into account the year-end holiday season.
For those buying coins or ingots, which can fit into the palm of a hand, the delay is six to eight weeks. A year ago, these small products could be had within a couple of days.
Worries about the banking system globally have boosted worldwide demand for physical gold, the Gold Council said.
“Many (people) are afraid of leaving their money in banks,” said Sandra Conway, managing director at ATS Bullion in London, which sells bullion and gold coins to institutions and the retail market.
“It’s difficult to quantify, but I would say our turnover over the last three months has certainly doubled compared to the previous three months,” she said.
This article was posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 12:30 pm