Gold's record run tame by 1980 standards

LONDON (Reuters) - Gold price at record levels? Pah! It ain’t like it used to be. Compared with the frenzy that went on back in 1979-80, the last time prices were this high, reaction to the current rise to record levels for the yellow metal is decidedly tame.

A worker looks at gold bracelets at a jewellery store in Singapore on April 11, 2006. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

Where is the mad rush to cash in on any old bit of gold lying around at home? Where is the drumbeat of gold as the savior of humankind?

People back then rushed to cash in and have their gold fillings taken out. In America, the high school graduation ring -- a knuckle-dusting chunk of a thing -- looked at times to be an endangered species as it headed for the gold melter.

Jim Srodes, a mega-freelancer who produced reams of business and finance copy for clients across the world from his Washington D.C. offices, was in the thick of it as a writer for a gold “newsletter” called the Wolfe Wire.

He recalls being asked by an older relative whether to buy gold. For your teeth or around your wife’s neck, he replied, “but don’t put it in the basement for your old age.”

The relative, caught up in the fever, ignored him.

The Wolfe Wire -- named for founder Thomas Wolfe, who had retired as director of the U.S. Treasury’s gold licensing office after the United States dropped off the gold standard -- sent stories via telex to about 50 high-flying clients.

Reflecting the frenetic demand for news that gold engendered back then, the service cost $5,000 a year, around $14,000 in today’s money. Srodes says it was billed as the most expensive newsletter in the world.

No stories about gold were too small to care about. Take for instance the sudden interest in an obscure U.S. military paraphernalia auction.

Among the items under the hammer were a sizeable number of old survival kits handed out to pilots who might find themselves downed in enemy territory.

What might have been a run-of-the-mill event took on far greater interest when it was discovered that gold was among the items in the kits for the pilots to bribe their way out of tricky situations.

News of the event was sent as far away as Switzerland and South Africa, presumably to the annoyance of a bunch of military buffs hoping for a cheap addition to their warfare collections.


Fear as well as gain was the motivation for some of the fever back in 1979-80. The Cold War, after all, was still icy and the global economy was in poor shape.

The then-U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, was talking about his nation’s malaise and sitting on double-digit inflation rates, which of course pushed up gold as a hedge.

Industrial economies were reeling from the second of two oil shocks, triggered by the 1979 Iranian revolution and the start of the Iran-Iraq war.

Srodes says one large mining company played on the fears with a full-page advertisement in newspapers showing a grim donkey cart pulling a bedraggled family towards a border checkpoint.

The narrative along with the advert had the family failing to pass customs until they handed over some gold coins.

“The message was hardly subtle --- you must have some gold to keep your family safe,” said Srodes, who is now a biographer of the likes of Benjamin Franklin.

The hoopla that accompanied gold’s record-breaking rise the last time around is probably missing this time partly because although there is plenty of risk around, including high oil prices, there is little 1970s-style doomsaying.

Primarily, however, it is probably because high though the price of gold seems today, the record $850 an ounce it hit at the London fixing on January 21, 1980, translates in today’s money to more than $2,150.

Better hold off on having those gold teeth removed.

Editing by Michael Roddy