TOKYO As the dollar's dominance fades with the emergence of a multipolar world, gold may stand to gain the most of all assets thanks to an unlikely quality -- neutrality.
While no major currency is likely to replace the dollar anytime soon, the need for an alternative is clear, and growing. China among others is considering how to diversify its more than $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves; talk of using other currencies to trade oil or commodities continues to circulate.
Supply constraints mean there is no chance of a full revival of the gold standard era, when currencies were pegged directly to gold, but investors say gold's duel role as both currency and asset make it an almost irresistible buy for years to come as financial geopolitics add risk into global markets.
"The fact that gold has a currency aspect without being tied to any country is key to enhancing its value as an asset," said Koichiro Kamei, managing director at financial research firm Market Strategy Institute.
"The realization that gold can be turned into anything spread quickly and widely as people used it to raise dollars last year when they were short of dollars."
Gold plunged almost 20 percent in October 2008, taking a hit when investors dumped assets across the curve for cash as liquidity dried during the height of the credit crunch.
But in comparison to other asset classes gold did well, with broader commodities and equities hitting multi-year lows in the unwinding of complex positions built over the past several years.
"Globally, gold has been bought as it is re-evaluated as a stable currency," said Osamu Ikeda, general manager at Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo, Japan's biggest bullion retailer.
It is also seen as a simpler investment after huge losses on sophisticated financial products endangered the global financial system and plunged the world deep into recession.
After the October 2008 plunge, gold returned to the upward momentum that had carried it to a record high in March 2008, defying the downtrend in most other assets.
The Reuters-Jefferies CRB Index, a global commodities benchmark, fell to a seven-year low earlier this year just as gold was again trying the $1,000 mark.
A big part of gold's gains have been attributed to the declining dollar. The dollar index, a measure against six major currencies, fell about 14 percent since March this year while gold rose about 13 percent during the same period.
"What has been a textbook reference of gold as a currency has been given life, especially after the Lehman shock. And that has concurrently highlighted its character as an asset that performs differently from other assets," said Shuji Sugata, a manager at Mitsubishi Corp Futures & Securities.
"Given its price movements against other assets and the declining confidence in the dollar, more funds have begun to include gold in their asset portfolios," he said.
The launch of gold-backed exchange-traded funds has also altered the way gold is viewed.
Such ETFs grew explosively over the past year after the financial crisis as retail investors entered the market, giving significant support to gold prices.
"Prior to ETFs, it was supply/demand balances and currency, gold's inverse relationship with the dollar. The launch of ETFs was an additional supportive factor for gold just as scepticism was growing about the dollar's dominance," Sugata said.
The world's largest gold-backed exchange-traded fund, the SPDR Gold Trust, saw its holdings rise to a record 1,134.03 tonnes on June 1, a 44 percent rise on the year that contributed to gold's 16 percent rise in the same period.
The growing number of investors means price action could also add to gold's volatility.
"I think the moves to the upside will be far quicker in their velocity, hitting $1,100 very shortly and then far higher over the next few years," said Peter McGuire, managing director Commodity Warrants Australia.
(Editing by Michael Urquhart)