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Apple's watch won't bring salvation for gold bugs

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 00:26

[SAN FRANCISCO] There's a tsunami of interest in Apple's new watch, with the world's biggest company scheduled to reveal more details about the gizmo later today. Part of the Twitterstorm, though, is focused on whether a planned high-end version of the timepiece - the Edition model in 18-karat gold - - has the potential to drive up the price of the yellow metal.

The speculation in part reflects the desperation of gold bugs who only ever seem to see reasons to buy. But it's also indicative of just how powerful Apple has become, even if all it's doing is basically inventing a better mousetrap and then selling the same product in a variety of different sizes.

The Rise and Fall of Gold "Apple may consume up to 756 metric tonnes of gold per year in the production of its new luxury Apple watch," was Friday's breathless e-mail from a company called Goldcore, which provides buying and selling services for precious metals.

"This equates to roughly one-third of gold's total annual global mine supply. May have enormous ramifications for gold market and propel prices higher."

Yes, you read that right. Apple, if the gold bugs are to be believed, will hoover up a third of the world's gold every year to bling its timepieces. But that incredible claim relies on some very sketchy assumptions at almost every step.

The speculation seems to have started with a Wall Street Journal report saying Apple could sell as many as one million gold watches per month. A blogging site called Tidbits picked up on that oversized figure, and got busy with some numbers of its own. Gold bugs seized upon speculation that there will be 2 troy ounces of gold in each watch, got tapping on their special gold bug calculators, and worked out that Apple would need to be in the market for 750 tons of gold each year. To put that in perspective, gold demand from the entire global jewelry industry last year was 2,153 tons, according to the World Gold Council.

Gene Munster, an analyst at the investment bank Piper Jaffray who's a long-time Apple watcher, is somewhat less hyperbolic about the sales prospects. The bank estimates that watch industry leader Rolex sells 750,000 watches a year at most, far short of the one million per month estimates for Apple. Munster predicts that Apple will only sell 10,000 of the priciest model - and that's for the year, not by the month.

A horology website called Timebuilder worked out in 2006 how much gold is in a Rolex President, the granddaddy of solid gold watches, which prices on eBay.com suggest retails for somewhere between US$10,000 and US$16,000. Including the case, the back, the bezel and the bracelet, the Rolex has a bit less than 75 grams of gold, or about 2.4 troy ounces.

We don't yet know how much the blingiest version of the Apple watch will cost; Munster predicts about US$5,000, perhaps rising to as much as US$7,500 when combined with the fanciest of straps. We also don't know how much gold will be used. At the current gold price of about US$1,175, wrapping 2 ounces of gold around its watch technology would cost Apple US$2,350 per timepiece. At gold's recent peak of US$1,900 in in September 2011, that climbs to US$3,800. (Apple's treasury department will need to spend a lot of time hedging itself in the futures market - or stockpile a lot of metal - if it doesn't want to be at the mercy of market volatility.)

It's clear why gold bugs want the Apple story to be true. With due respect to those investors who use it as a store of value rather than to speculate on its price, gold is down 10 per cent from its January peak, with losses from the 2011 top starting to approach 40 per cent: It seems unlikely, though, that the Apple watch will have anywhere as much gold as a Rolex President - especially at the mooted price point. It also seems rather far-fetched to expect Apple's monthly sales to outpace the annual demand enjoyed by Rolex.

Don't get me wrong: I want one, even though it's basically a smaller version of the iPhone, which in turns is a miniaturized iPad, which itself is just a small iMac, all of which I already own. But no matter how popular the watch is, Apple won't be riding to the rescue of the gold price.

BLOOMBERG