Monday, 24 October 2011

My local gold market: Hackney

I bought a small amount of gold a month ago and it has already lost about 10% of its value. The gold I bought wasn't the sort I could hold in my hand, it was shares in something called an exchange traded fund (ETF).

I bought the stuff because gold is meant to be a safe bet in times of financial trouble - like now - but recently it hasn't behaved as expected.

The losses add some urgency to the task of understanding my gold investment. Unfortunately the factors at play are so grand or so technical (eurozone debt crisis, Chinese growth, futures markets, currencies) that it's hard for a normal human being to get a real feeling for it.

So I turned to a gold market closer to home where I live, Hackney in East London, hoping this might help me 'connect' with my small lump of metal.

Narroway is the main street in Hackney Central, the focal point of the recent riots (video below) and it has five pawnbrokers/jewellers who buy and sell gold (one of them, Fish Brothers, was shut).

I didn't think this market would have much to do with gold ETFs so I took a gold signet ring I was given by a relative.

The first place I went to was called Cashier where staff served customers from behind perspex screens embedded in battered-looking booths. When I arrived there was one guy in shop and he was getting strict instructions not to be late with a loan payment - he had until Saturday.

When he left the woman who served him dealt with me. Yes, she said, I could get cash for the ring but only after a couple of on-the-spot tests. She said she would weigh it first, give me a rough price, and if I wanted to take it further she would do a chemical test.

I've had this ring for decade or so. It had belonged to my great uncle and while I had no real idea what it was worth I was kind of hoping for a nice surprise. My expectations were tempered a little when she pointed to the '.375' hallmark which meant the ring was 9 carat gold (not very pure). But I was still shocked when she offered me £46 - a sum which would have replaced just one of my shoes.

I started asking her questions like where her gold price came from, how often it was updated and (it seemed like a normal question at the time) whether she'd had any customers coming in with gold teeth. At this point she got a little suspicious and I decided to tell her what I was doing.

We had brief chat and, among other things, she said the store was pretty busy and that she'd had a customer in the day before selling gold teeth.

As it turned out Cashier offered me the best price out of four shops I tried. The next best came from a newly opened branch of Albermarle Bond (pictured above) where I was offered £43 for the ring. The girl behind the counter also said the store was busy but no one had been in with gold teeth.

She, and all the other gold buyers, said that most customers generally over estimated the value of their gold trinkets. I confessed that I was one of them.

In retrospect it seems likely that the two shops which offered the best prices for gold (Albermarle and Cashier) really made their money out of payday loans (according to the Wall Street Journal the only booming part of the financials sector in the US).

I suspect that people who hoped to plug a hole in their finances by selling their gold jewellery would be tempted into one of their high interest short term loans.

Hackney Discount Jewellers, which has been on Narroway for 30 years, offered me £40 for the ring. The guy running the shop had a different theory about the higher price being offered for scrap gold at Albermarle Bond and Cashier. He said it was more likely due to the other shops having retail outlets - and so having some control over how much they could make when they sold the gold again.

He said times were hard and that a handful of his customers had been selling gold teeth. He added that thieves had been targeting ostentatious gold wearers.

Next was Erbiller which felt more like a traditional highstreet jewellers - it felt more like a shop that catered for female customers and there were two women looking at rings. The young man behind the counter said that business was slow with fewer people buying jewellery. He only offered me £30 for the ring.

So, the news from the Hackney gold market is that most of the people who are active are selling their gold to make ends meet. My guess is that they are selling their gold because they have to.

Unfortunately, when they walk into a gold shop, like me they'll probably be disappointed by the amount they are offered for their gold. My guess is that this experience will make the high interest loans offered by these places look like a good idea.

But over all, the trend on the Narroway is no buyers, mainly sellers. But these shops are pawn brokers or jewellers, they don't sell the coins and small bars favoured by investors.

Investors are more likely to buy from the likes of ATS Bullion and Baird & Co for physical gold. Or, if they don't want to stash it at home, to ETF Securities or BullionVault.

Hackney has some history on this front and one high profile example was highlighted this year by one of the UK's most successful fund managers, Sebastian Lyon, who runs the £1.4 billion Trojan fund and the £370 million Personal Assets Trust.

Lyon likes gold and has about 13% of these funds' assets in gold - mostly using the same vehicle that I do: exchange traded funds.

In a report to his investors in June he said he said he wasn't worried that the gold price was in bubble: "With only 0.6% of global financial assets invested in gold compared to 3% in 1980 and with the supply of paper money increasing at an exponential rate we are way off bubble territory."

But for a human angle he turned to a recent piece of Hackney history: "Martin Sulzbacher, a German Jewish banker, who hid a hoard of gold coins in a garden in Hackney before being interned in 1940".

Sulzbacher never reclaimed the coins and they were rediscovered 70 years later and returned to his son. Over this period their value increased from $1,640 to £100,000. Lyon pointed out that "paper money would scarcely have preserved wealth at all."

It's the story of one long-dead Hackney gold investor who certainly hadn't meant to lose his gold. I can't say I identify with it, but it does highlight the liklihood that the buying and selling on Narroway doesn't represent all of Hackney's gold reserves.