Heres what Hungary just did to reduce risk without hurting returns

Hungary isn’t known today as one of the world’s top gold producing countries. There was a time, though, when it accounted for around three quarters of Europe’s entire output of the yellow metal, if you can believe it. According to historian Peter Sugar’s A History of Hungary, the central European country was a “veritable El Dorado” in the 14th century, and its gold pieces circulated widely across the entire continent, competing with those minted in Italy and England.

It was this rich mining heritage that Hungary’s central bank evoked when it announced this week its decision to increase gold holdings tenfold, from 3.1 metric tons to 31.5 tons, taking gold’s share of total reserves to 4.4 percent. (Gold accounts for 73.5 percent of U.S. reserves, by comparison, the most of any country.) Hungarian central bank governor Gyorgy Matolcsy described the move as one of “economic and national strategic importance,” adding that the extra gold made the country’s reserves “safer” and “reduced risk.” This is the first time since 1986 that Hungary has increased its gold holdings.

Hungary just boosted its gold reserves tenfold
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The country isn’t alone in its mission to diversify. Last week we learned that Poland became the first European Union (EU) member to increase its gold reserves in two decades. The Eastern European country added as much as 9 metric tons of hard assets between July and August of this year. Central banks in Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan have also kept up their gold buying, representing close to 90 percent of the activity we’ve seen this year.

Meanwhile, the EU has continued to print paper money.

A Good Store of Value

So why should banks—or investors, for that matter—be interested in boosting their gold holdings? One reason is timing. Until last week, gold prices have been relatively affordable, trading at 52-week lows of around $1,180 an ounce in mid-August and at the end of September. Central banks’ investment was wisely made. From those lows, gold is now up more than 4 percent on stock volatility.

Check out the chart below. I think it’s fascinating to see the relationship between dramatic moves in the stock market and people’s interest in gold. Last week when stocks sold off, Google searches for “gold price” jumped to their highest in at least a month. This shows, I believe, that people recognize gold as a good store of value when market volatility reemerges.

Spike in Google searches for gold price corresponding with stock selloff
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Gold Has Helped Improve a Portfolio’s Risk-Adjusted Returns

Returning to what Hungarian central bank governor Matolcsy said about risk reduction, a certain amount of gold has been shown to improve a portfolio’s Sharpe ratio, according to the World Gold Council’s (WGC) most recent Gold Investor. The Sharpe ratio, in case you’re unaware, measures a portfolio’s risk-adjusted returns relative to its peers, based on standard deviation. The higher the ratio is over its peers, the better the risk-adjusted returns.

Performance of an institutional portfolio with or without gold
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Analysts at New Frontier Advisors found that an institutional portfolio with a 6 percent weighting in gold had a higher Sharpe ratio than one without any gold exposure. This means that volatility was reduced without hurting returns.

Although analysts were looking at Chinese portfolios in particular, the WGC’s Fred Yang believes these findings can just as easily be applied to portfolios that are invested in U.S.-, European- or U.K.-listed assets. The “research indicates,” Yang says, “that most well-balanced portfolios would benefit from a modest allocation to gold.”

I’ve often advocated for a 10 percent Golden Rule—with 5 percent in bullion, the other 5 percent in gold stocks—and so New Frontier’s research is illuminating. It also helps explain Hungary and Poland’s actions, as well as those of other net purchasers of gold.