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Banking on gold

By Murray Cox
BBC News

David and Maureen Somers
David and Maureen Somers

Four years ago, fearful of a property crash, David and Maureen Somers sold their house and bought gold. It's a tactic suddenly popular with those seeking a safe haven for their money.

As safe as houses. This piece of perceived wisdom no longer seems quite so wise as property prices fall and stocks stutter.

But there is one area of the global financial machine that is revving up - gold.

When times are bad, investors have traditionally sought refuge in this precious metal. With bullion dealers reporting a surge in business, it seems history is repeating itself.

Prices are strong and David Somers is delighted, because he effectively bet his house on it. The retired croupier sold his house in 2004 and invested the proceeds in gold.

GOLD PRICES
1999: Prices lowest in 20 years after Gordon Brown urged Bank of England to sell half its reserves
These were sold in 17 auctions between 1999 and 2002 for average of $275.6 an ounce
Currently about $900 an ounce
In March it surged through $1,000 mark for first time

"I was worried about the health of the financial markets at that time, I was worried that something like this credit crunch could be on the way," he says.

"The fact that at the time, only 35,000 of savings in a bank or building society were secure worried me, and I spent a lot of time doing research into what to do. Gold seemed to the best place."

The 56-year-old had seen his friends suffer badly in the last recession through negative equity, punishing repayments, bankruptcy and repossession.

"I looked at my friends and saw that their prime capital earning years were effectively taken away from them because of the way the system had been working."

Alchemy

Mr Somers and his wife Maureen claim it would be "vulgar" to say how much they invested in gold. However, he does say they sold their three-bedroom, detached house in Poole for a significant profit, and the couple have since almost doubled their money again in gold.

GOLD AND TAX
A bullion bar
It's a commodity, so subject to capital gains tax, less expenses
Mr Somers buys and sells gold each year to take advantage of capital gains tax allowance
This also helps increase his overall gold holding

"Over thousands of years gold has never reached zero. The price is a risk, but at the end of the day I will still have the same amount of gold," he says.

"There are people who probably hold bank shares that would have been seen as conservative investments and you could question what they are going to be left with."

Mr Somers has never touched the gold he owns, but is able to track its value online.

"It's in a secure vault and I'm really quite happy that they don't let people in to look at it or fondle it. That said, we have stroked the computer screen when we've seen the price go up."

If the couple need money they simply sell some of their gold - it can be sold by the gram, currently about 16 - and the funds are deposited in their bank account the following day.

Commission fees are typically less than half of a percent, and insurance against theft is also a nominal amount.

The couple now live in rental accommodation in Somerset, although Mr Somers hopes to buy property again once prices drop further.

Bunker mentality

Other investors are now following suit, with bullion dealers reporting a sudden upswing in business.

Bullion Vault is an online gold broker in west London, which allows clients to buy and sell certified gold held in vaults in London, Zurich and New York.

It is currently opening an average of three times as many accounts a day compared with the start of September.

Founder Paul Tustain says the appeal of gold is its ability to hold its value over time, and it measures up well against inflation.

"There is a story told about a Roman emperor who bought a suit of clothes thousands of years ago with an ounce of gold. Today that same ounce would be worth about $900, and that would again pay for a suit of clothes," he says.

Mr Tustain stresses that gold is a long-term investment that comes into its own when times are bad, like the Great Depression and during the stagflation of the 1970s.

And Mr Somers, for one, is glad he turned bricks and mortar into gold. "What's happening at the moment is like a financial blitz, and I feel like gold is my tin hat at this time. I wouldn't want to be in a bombed-out economy without it."


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