Gold Is Glittering, but Silver, Platinum, Copper and Palladium Outshine It

Copper wire
Copper wire

The European Union's trillion-dollar rescue package was a balm for equity investors everywhere, but gold bugs are acting as if this bailout just put the euro on death row. Gold, the ultimate safe-haven asset, has made a powerful move to the upside in May, hitting a nominal all-time high of $1,240 an ounce on Wednesday.

But all that glitters is not gold. The less illustrious metals of silver, platinum, palladium and copper have easily outshined gold over the last year -- and none is remotely close to its own nominal all-time high. Whether gold has more short-term upside ahead depends more on fear than fundamentals. The other side of that trade is a bet on global growth. And based on the performance of the more useful metals, the bulls are winning.

Given the truly epic debt debacle that is Europe, a flight to safety is hardly irrational. Anything that casts doubt on the sustainability of Europe's economic recovery or the stability (heck, viability) of the euro is rightfully unnerving. The global economy needs Europe. At $18 trillion, the 27-member EU's GDP is equivalent to the economies of the U.S. and China combined.

As an anecdotal data point of skittishness, Wednesday saw more chatter (after last Thursday's) about Germany dumping the euro when Kitco, the giant precious-metals dealer, was found to have posted quotes priced in deutsche marks. Sounds far-fetched, but rumors can indeed move prices. Gold traders, like currency speculators, are incorrigible gossips.

Far More Lucrative Bets

The problem is that bullishness on gold is essentially bearishness on everything else. Gold has commercial and industrial uses, but mostly the ductile metal just sits around being a store of value -- a hedge against bad things happening. On the other hand, copper, silver, platinum and palladium are so widespread and elemental in their uses that they are the global economy. (Imagine a world without copper -- or zinc.)

Equities have been a nice bet on global recovery over the last year. After all, the S&P 500 ($INX) is up 28% over the last 52 weeks. But that ain't nothing compared to gold. The yellow metal rose about 40% over the same period, popping 6% in May alone as stocks fell 2%.

But far more lucrative bets on a global rebound were to be found in platinum, copper, silver and palladium. Platinum, at $1,740 an ounce, is up about 50% in the last year, helped by a recovery in auto sales (it's used in catalytic converters). It would need to gain another 20% to hit a new all-time high.

Something More Is Going On

Dr. Copper, the metal with the PhD in economics, thanks to its putative predicative powers, gained 60% to $3.18 a pound over the last 52 weeks. But it would still have to more than double to hit a record.

Silver has gained roughly 65%, trading partially in sympathy with gold, but also for its uses in electronics, batteries and chemistry. But at $19.50 an ounce, silver would have to more than triple to hit a new high. Palladium (catalytic converters, again) jumped more 140% over the last year to $542 an ounce, or about 600 bucks below its record.

Gold might grab the headlines, but the performance of the other major metals suggests there's more to this story.