Gold sinks into bear market on institutional exodus

LONDON/NEW YORK,  (Reuters) – Gold sank almost 5 percent into bear territory yesterday as institutional investors fled bullion in favour of other safe-haven assets amid concerns about central bank sales and souring sentiment.

The breadth of the sell-off will underline some expectations that gold’s meteoric rally may be coming to an end after 12 years of gains.

The relentless selling sent gold below $1,500 an ounce for the first time since July 2011, and put the market on track for its worst weekly performance since December 2011.

Bullion has soared by more than five times due to its status as a safe-haven investment in troubled times and fears of inflation while the Federal Reserve has embarked on its aggressive stimulus programme.

Yesterday, an unexpected contraction in U.S. retail sales, which hurt stocks and supported the dollar  added to pressures building in the course of the week from several factors, including a draft plan for Cyprus to sell bullion and outflows from exchange-traded gold funds.

“The scale of the decline has been absolutely breathtaking. We tried to rally and that just didn’t get anywhere … there hasn’t been any downside support, it’s like a knife through butter,” Societe Generale analyst Robin Bhar said.

The pace of the sell-off appeared tied to volatility in the price of Japanese government bonds, which has forced certain holders to sell other assets to meet the risk modeling of their investment portfolios.

“The economic sensitive commodities – energy, industrial metals – have been signaling weakness for the past two months, and you could see that many investors are now reassessing global growth prospects,” said Jeffrey Sherman, a commodities portfolio manager at DoubleLine Capital LP in Los Angeles.

Gold hit a low of $1,484.30, down 4.85 percent and was heading for a 6-percent decline this week, in its biggest weekly drop since December 2011. It was down some 23 percent below the record peak hit in September 2011 at $1,920.30. Bonds rallied on Friday.

U.S. gold futures also hit their lowest since July 2011, with gold for June delivery falling to as low as $1,481.3 an ounce at 3:50 p.m. EDT (1950 GMT). It settled at $1,501.40, down 4.1 percent.

Other precious metals also sold off, with silver the biggest loser, sliding 5.36 percent to $26.12 per ounce. The commodities complex came under pressure as Brent crude oil hit an eight-month low.

A European Commission assessment of what Cyprus needs to do as part of its European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout earlier this week showed it was set to sell gold reserves to raise around 400 million euros ($525 million).

While Cyprus’ gold sale in itself is small, heavily indebted euro zone nations such as Italy and Portugal could also find themselves under increasing pressure to put their bullion reserves to work.

“If Cyprus can break the gold market, then (there are) many reasons to be worried, with Slovenia, Hungary, Portugal, Spain and Italy in line,” said Milko Markov, an investment analyst at S.K. Hart Management.

Spot gold was down nearly 4 percent on the day and off almost 5 percent on the week – its worst week since Dec. 2011. It was down some 22 percent below the record peak hit in September 2011 at $1,920.30.

Outflows from exchange-traded gold funds led by SPDR Gold Trust – the world’s largest bullion-backed ETF – added to the weakness in gold seen from the beginning of the week.

The sell-off shares in the GLD, which brought the ETF to a session low of $144.34, had the effect of “slaying the most ardent golden bull,” said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co Inc.

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