Brexit and flight to safety propel sterling-priced gold to record high

LONDON (Reuters) - Gold priced in sterling soared to a record high on Monday, spurred by fear of a disorderly British exit from the European Union and a generalised flight to safe-haven assets that intensified with rising U.S.-China trade tensions.

FILE PHOTO: Gold bullion is displayed at Hatton Garden Metals precious metal dealers in London, Britain July 21, 2015. REUTERS/Neil Hall/File Photo

Gold priced in the British currency has rocketed 25% since early May to a peak of 1,209.55 pounds an ounce, beating its previous record of 1,204.63 pounds set in 2011.

Gold’s value has surged broadly this year as concerns over trade wars and a global economic slowdown rippled through financial markets.

Those fears pushed investors towards assets they think could weather market shocks and forced central banks to freeze or cut interest rates, lowering bond yields and making non-yielding gold more attractive.

Prices in benchmark U.S. dollars have rallied 15% since May to 6-year peaks above $1,450 an ounce and are at record highs in currencies including the Canadian and Australian dollars and India’s rupee.

In Britain, 10-year bond yields sank to record lows -- a fall that could continue if, as investors expect, the Bank of England cuts rates in the coming months.

The pound has also fallen its the lowest since early 2017 against the dollar, helping to account for the faster rise in sterling-priced gold.

The rising possibility of a turbulent British break from the EU, which has hammered the pound, has also triggered a wave of gold buying that helped push prices higher everywhere.

“Unless and until we’ve got a degree of clarity on Brexit, the only way is up,” said INTL FCStone analyst Rhona O’Connell.

The rise to power of Boris Johnson, a leader of the 2016 Brexit campaign who has become steadily more hardline in his negotiating stance with the EU and now promises a “do or die” exit by Oct. 31, has been accompanied by massive gold purchases by institutional UK investors.

Over the first half of the year, UK-listed exchange-traded funds (ETFs) added 63 tonnes of gold worth nearly $3 billion to their holdings, data from the World Gold Council (WGC) showed.

That accounted for almost 60% of total increases in ETF gold holdings worldwide, the data showed. In the second quarter, UK funds accounted for an even greater proportion of global purchases at 78%.

UK-listed ETFs attract investment from across Europe but mostly from Britain.

Institutional investors want gold to shield them from sterling devaluation and economic shocks, said the WGC’s head of market intelligence, Alistair Hewitt. “It’s a currency uncertainty thing, which is obviously based on Brexit,” he said.

Purchases of bars and coins by retail investors in Britain, which had trended higher since the Brexit referendum in 2016, slumped in the second quarter sharply higher prices prompted many to cash in gains, WGC figures show.

But investors are now returning.

BullionVault, an online marketplace where investors can buy and store gold, said people were buying twice as much gold as they were selling on Monday even as prices rocketed.

“We have seen significantly more UK users buying than selling this morning. This compares to the rest of the world users were buyers & sellers are in balance,” a representative from the company said.

Ross Norman, CEO of London bullion dealer Sharps Pixley, said his business had seen turnover triple this year, adding that not only Brexit but a wider sense of economic insecurity was motivating buyers.

“Generally it’s a feeling that something isn’t quite right,” he said.

Reporting by Peter Hobson; Additional reporting by Zandi Shabalala; Editing by Veronica Brown and David Evans