The magic of gold (or, gold viewed through a human lens)

Editorial column from May 12, 2014, issue of Coin World
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Published : 04/25/14
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A recent National Public Radio report illuminated a phenomenon that is often described but rarely humanized: India’s obsession with gold. 

It reminded me that gold has different meanings for different people, and while there’s a fluctuating market value that changes by the second, there’s also a strong cultural value of gold that is unique for each country and also shifts with time.

Private gold ownership is central to India’s culture. For women, owning gold has provided individual security. At Indian weddings, brides often receive gifts of gold — traditionally in the form of jewelry — to provide good fortune to the bride.

For Indian women, gold jewelry serves multiple purposes: objects of adornment, a form of security against life’s changes, and a store of savings and wealth. 

National Public Radio’s story estimated that Indian households control approximately $600 billion to $800 billion worth of gold (or, four times the American reserves at the U.S. Mint facility at Fort Knox).

However, gold in India is increasingly being used for a more concrete purpose: It is being pledged to secure loans for individuals who don’t have access to traditional credit sources. For example, Muthoot Finance has 4,000 branches throughout India and transacts the equivalent of more than $50 million in gold loans per day. Its interest rates of 12 to 24 percent are comparable to U.S. credit card rates.

These loans challenge a traditional view of gold as an idle asset, or something that one puts under his or her bed as a sort of rainy day fund. Especially in an economy where individuals don’t have access to bank accounts or formal credit, the expanded use of gold in India to help individuals build their lives is something to watch from both a humanist and an economic lens.

  Steve Roach, sroach@coinworld.com

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