In recent weeks, gold has experienced a renaissance of sorts, quietly re-emerging as the centerpiece of a handful of initiatives in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. On Dec. 1, voters in Switzerland considered — and eventually rejected — a populist plan to force its central bank to buy gold in a controversial bid to stabilize its currency. Russia and China both made headlines by snapping up enormous stores of gold. In late November, Marine Le Pen of France, a nationalist politician, called on her government to start amassing gold, and the Netherlands followed suit, revealing that same week that it had repatriated $5 billion of its own gold from a vault in New York City owned by the Federal Reserve.

What’s going on here? Like almost everything concerning gold, the experts don’t agree. Some have interpreted the metal’s mini-comeback as an indication that financial Armageddon, in the guise of runaway inflation, is approaching. Others have read the recent moves as a symbolic way for central banks and governments to make a show of strength in nervously uncertain economic times.

“Holding gold, for people and for governments, reflects our anxieties about the future,” said Michael Bordo, a professor of economics at Rutgers University who specializes in monetary history and policy. “Even though it might seem somewhat retrograde, to many investors, having it on hand is something safe.”

The Swiss proposal, for example, called for the central bank to hold at least 20 percent of its national reserves in gold. While the referendum was designed in part to reassure Swiss citizens concerned about the solvency of their money, some historians have argued that, even had it passed, it would have had no palpable effect on the value of the franc.

“It was mostly a symbolic move,” said Richard Sylla, a professor of the history of financial markets and institutions at New York University. “Which isn’t to say that it was crazy or unfounded. What the Swiss were really saying by considering the plan was that some of them were going to feel a whole lot better if they had tons of gold inside the bank.’”

Needless to say, in an era when the balance sheets of many central banks have expanded to unprecedented scope, there has been plenty of discussion of those last two trends, causing a pessimistic sect of economic experts to augur pending doom in the repatriation schemes and the shopping sprees by Moscow and Beijing.

“By purchasing gold, China and Russia have indicated that they understand how fragile things are and that they’re getting ready for the demise of the dollar,” said James G. Rickards, author of “The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System.” “At the same time, other countries have been watching what they’re doing and are saying to themselves, ‘If things are really that bad, then we better get our gold back,’ possession being nine-tenths of the law.”


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