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Gold prices hit all-time high, and it's a bit of a mystery why

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The price of gold surged to an all-time high on Monday. Some experts pointed to the worsening of U.S.-China trade and political tensions. Others cited growing investor concerns that an economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic might be weakening in the U.S. and elsewhere.

But the jump in gold prices is highly unusual because stock prices have also surged recently after dropping in early March as coronavirus began to spread in the U.S.

Gold is usually seen as a safe haven when stocks are falling or when inflation is rising. Neither of those two things are happening right now.

Nonetheless, gold spiked $40.60 to a record $1,938.10 per ounce in a sign that nervous investors were looking for safe havens to park their money.

When adjusted for inflation, gold prices were actually higher in September 2011. Prices peaked back then before later losing one-third of their value by December 2013. To hit an inflation-adjusted high, gold would have to rise another 10%, or $200, to $2,135.

Stocks markets around the world have have regained most of this year's losses, but forecasters warn the stock rebound might have been too big and too early as virus case numbers rise in the United States and some other economies. And the jump in gold prices seems to suggest that some investors agree with those negative forecasts — and are seeking ports in the storm to park their money.

Bitcoin, the extremely volatile cryptocurrency that some proponents and marketers claim is safe from inflation, has also risen recently, crossing $10,000 for the first time in nearly a year.

Why gold is shining

The latest increase in gold prices also came as diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China are rising. The Trump administration told Beijing last week to close its consulate in Houston. China responded by ordering the closure of the U.S. consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

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Investors also are worried about a rise in U.S. layoffs as spiking coronavirus infections cause more businesses to shut down. Extra unemployment benefits expire this week. Congress has yet to agree on more economic aid.

All that has increased uncertainty about the direction of the economy. And uncertainty is often seen as good for gold prices.

"The current environment with U.S. dollar weakness, Covid-19 crisis and increased US-Sino tensions has the potential to move [gold] prices further up and to test the $2,000 mark," Hans Gunther Ritter, the head of trading for Heraeus Precious Metals, said in a statement. "There is still growth potential for gold allocations in investment portfolios as interests remain low for longer. To some degree gold replaces the US dollar, which typically benefits during a crisis."

Beware fool's gold

It's worth remembering during the latest gold rush that Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and CEO of insurance conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, has long warned investors against buying gold.

The prices of stocks and U.S. houses have risen faster over time than gold. Buffett has called investors who buy gold when the price is rising, even during times of uncertainty, "foolish."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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