From an anthropological perspective, one aspect of life that COVID has brought to light is the importance of meaning: the question of individual freedom to make meaning following one's own judgment and will, and the violence of the anti-meaning impulse with which the individual is met as the form of the human being is freed from old utility.
This evolutionary struggle between meaning and anti-meaning infuses every area of human activity, from public health and education policy to the ebbs and flows of global financial markets. Anyone with an interest in the latter will have noticed the soaring value of precious metals, namely gold, since the beginning of the pandemic. As the price of gold reached a peak mid-summer and hit an all-time high against the dollar, an event mirrored by the bottoming of national interest rates, many would-be investors began to look to silver, the market for which is eight times smaller than that for gold.
Personally, I have to admit that I have never been a fan of silver. Too cool and unflattering against my warm skin tone. Is it really authentic to invest in something, I wondered, whether a commodity or a company, that one finds aesthetically displeasing? If, according to Rudolf Steiner, the mineral kingdom is the next of the primal slated for total transformation (and indeed, it would seem, a site of future geopolitical struggle), it seemed natural to want to prioritize the beautiful in this process of becoming by betting on its value. Why not invest in beautiful gemstones rather than silver, for example, since gold had grown too expensive?
A practical solution for investing in precious metals involves buying shares in a financial product known as an exchange-traded fund, or ETF. Gold-backed ETFs relieve the investor of having to insure the physical presence of the metal in their possession, as well as the expense of having to ship it and eventually sell it (or fear having it stolen). Instead, one can buy a share in a gold-backed ETF, where physical gold is kept in a vault, often in London, and audited by regulators bi-annually. Of course, there are fears that many ETFs are overleveraged, and should one really need to recover one's investment, fund managers would be unable to satisfy sudden demand for liquidities, essentially replicating the phenomenon of a bank run.
To my surprise, I discovered no gemstone ETFs. The last one, called GEMS, emerged and failed over the short period of the Great Recession of 2013-2014. Moreover, it was a fund of gemstone mining companies and not physically backed by gemstones. And so I was left mulling a new question: what might we understand from the discourses surrounding the ever-popular gold-backed ETFs that would help us understand why the gemstone ETF failed?
By saying that GEMS failed, I don't mean to imply that it was a bad idea, only that it failed to meet the cultural criteria for a stable hedge investment, which is the whole raison d'être of an ETF. Anthropologically, the idea of a hedge investment has a lot to do with meaning: the perception that there could exist in a given substance a stable meaning, an eternal one even, always accessible beyond our individual and cultural sensibilities. Beyond time.
Gold is the beloved commodity for most people who can see the precariousness of the national project, its panem et circenses and the subsequent cycles of inflation that ensue. With the massive stimulus spending enacted by national governments as a response to COVID, more money flows into the economy, causing higher inflation as well as higher interest rates, which are good for banks but bad for the value of fiat money. Additionally, investors have faced a lack of foresight concerning supply and demand for oil, given the lockdowns imposed by governments. In light of such instability, hedging options help to ensure the value of one's capital.
Traditionally, treasuries (bonds) are one such attractive hedge investment during such times, because they don't move in the same direction as equities (stocks). The conventional guidance is to balance one's investments across stocks and bonds, at 60% and 40% respectively. During the pandemic, however, in the context of stimulus spending, the US government has flooded the market with bonds, and the Central Bank has followed by buying bonds at the low end of the yield curve to keep rates low. The result has been that treasuries are no longer seen as a good hedge: while stocks have dropped, treasury yields have not risen. Bond prices are seemingly stuck where they are.
As real rates, or the difference between what one thinks they are earning on the money invested and the actual value of the money they get back in return from the investment, have gone negative in the US, gold particularly and precious metals generally have become an ever-attractive alternative.
One factor affecting the potential value of precious metals is their utility qua 'real commodity' subject to supply and demand. For example, about half of silver is used for industrial purposes, such as manufacturing solar panels. Another major factor is the available quantity of the metal, current and projected. All the gold in the world, it is said, could fit into a townhouse. Finally, one oft overlooked factor is the meaning ascribed to the metals by our perception of their purity, a subjective concept that anthropologist Andrew Walsh explores in depth in his ethnography about the global sapphire trade, Made in Madagascar.
As I have been listening to my gold investor friends, however divided they may be about the legitimacy of gold-backed ETFs, it seems that the metal's purity is what unites them. It occurred to me that this quality might also help to explain why there is no gemstone ETF for the stone lovers among us.
A major reason given for the winding down of GEMS was that the mining companies, whose operations were financed in part by the investors to the ETF, were themselves linked to the course of equities, being publicly listed companies subject to the whims of the market. Even if that aspect of the fund were corrected (a major structural adjustment, for sure, but not an impossible one), it seems to me that a gemstone-backed ETF would still be a cultural gamble, because of our obsession with purity revealed in how we think about the suitability of gold as a hedge.
As anyone who has tired of old jewelry pieces well knows, gold can be melted down and molded into a new form. Its value is stable across forms - uniform - because of its purity. Such purity and uniformity of substance are required in order to qualify as an object of exchange, something gold and other precious metals have historically been. By contrast, the purity of gemstones can only be evaluated on an individual basis. The puzzle of which they are a part can never be pieced back together. Consequently, unlike a gold-backed ETF, it would be impossible to know the value of a gemstone-backed ETF through the space held (the weight and quantity) of its stones.
One fund has tried to address this problem by grouping stones in "baskets" of equivalent purity, independently appraised by a gemologist. The risk, anthropologically speaking, is that "purer" baskets would not actually be objectively purer, only representative of such a level of purity in our perception. Purity here needs to be understood as "purity in perception", not something actually contained in the object, which is the precondition for uniformity.
Gemstones are individuals: in our perception, they do not hold the status of divine substance that gold does. The preference for gold is about its purity in perception across time and across cultures. Psychically, gold acts as a symbol for matter as divine substance. This phenomenon cannot only be understood historically, according to past utility qua object of exchange, but speaks to a psychic striving for the embodiment of an ideal form, a need to identify matter as divine substance that would exist independently of our perception. Because they depend on this cultural fact and appeal to this psychic need, gold-backed ETFs represent a "deeper" materialism than fiat money and productive assets like stocks.
The paucity of gemstone-backed ETFs shows that a substance must qualify as both uniform and pure to serve as the basis for a stable ETF. Both qualities taken together work to ensure that a substance will give the impression of having value outside of human perception and experience. In truth, however, the value of gold, too, depends on our perception and experience of it (and we know this). In this way, it symbolizes our hope for the possibility of a divine substance. Gold represents the divinization of matter, as its worth is believed to be beyond perception, beyond the beautiful.