McKenna documentary is a fool’s guide to gold – by John Doyle (Globe and Mail – April 18, 2013)

Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Here in the TV Cranny, financial management consists of occasional bouts of scribbling numbers on a scrap of paper followed by some basic addition and subtraction. Hopes for the future rest on six bucks spent weekly on the Lotto 6/49.

If I read the wonderfully written Streetwise Blog of this great newspaper, I do so with admiration and complete bafflement. I’m sure that Boyd Erman and Jacqueline Nelson are absolutely right about capital markets and equity backers, but I couldn’t explain why.

I am deaf to the countless commercials urging me to trade in my old gold jewellery for cash. I have no gold jewellery, new or old. Besides, those places where such transactions occur always seem to be located in areas of Toronna so obscure that a journey there would require a warning to friends and colleagues that if I’m not back in two days, send out a search party. If I had old gold jewellery, I wouldn’t go there.

The lure of gold. I get it. Precious stuff. Or I thought I did. After watching the wonderful documentary The Secret World of Gold (CBC, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone [April 18, 2013]), I’m not so sure. And, as the price of gold is crashing, apparently, this program might help to explain the situation.

This gist is this: There isn’t as much gold as people think there is. In fact, there might not be as much gold in the fabled Fort Knox as we are led to believe. Also, a sure way to find gold is to search the ocean floors.

The doc, made by Brian McKenna, begins with bold statements about gold and why it matters so much. “The Incas called gold the sweat of the sun,” we’re told. Also, “The history of gold is stained with blood of those who toiled for it.” Indeed.

There follows some great storytelling about the movement of gold during the Second World War. We hear about France getting its gold out of the country one step ahead of the Nazis in 1940. And how Winston Churchill later asked France to release the gold, but Charles de Gaulle said, “Non!” It is explained how all of England’s gold was dispatched to Canada and later used to buy munitions from the United States.

Even when we’re told about all that gold being moved around by ship in the past, it’s still a surprise to learn that an estimated three million shipwrecks with gold or silver treasure are at the bottom of the ocean. And that explains why Odyssey Marine, a U.S. company, spends millions of dollars trying to find it. Not long ago, it found a wreck with 600,000 coins off the coast of Portugal worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Exactly who owns it, of course, is a source of much legal action.

But the meat of the doc is in its exploration of how gold and silver are actually traded. We learn that some people say that much of the gold held by the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the U.S. Federal Reserve and Fort Knox is actually long gone. Although there is much trade in gold, it seems that much of the trade us based on “virtual” gold that doesn’t exist in any physical reality. The suggestions become bizarre to anyone without deep knowledge of the markets in precious metals – Germany’s gold is held in New York and Germany wants it back, but is it actually there? And Canada, we’re told, has sold off its gold reserve.

You couldn’t make up this stuff, but it seems that a lot of gold that is traded is entirely made up. Except, perhaps, what is bought and sold by all those buyers of old jewellery. Little wonder they have so much money to spend on TV commercials.

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