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Will Gold Prices Break Down in 2013?

Many investors are uncertain about their finances right now for a host of reasons — the fiscal cliff, the eurozone debt crisis, the corporate earnings recession, yadda yadda yadda.

That means 2013 could be a breakout year for gold as a safe haven investment. Right?

Maybe — but on the whole, the arguments for gold go far beyond a simple assertion that it is a “contrarian” investment. And it’s important to note that in the second half of the year, we could be faced with a very different environment as data about earnings, jobs and sovereign debt slowly improve.

So if you’re wondering whether gold prices will rally or crash in 2013, the unfortunate answer is … both.

The Upside

Here’s the bull case first, focused on the short-term.

Central Bank Buying: A September report indicates that central bank purchases will increase to 493 metric tons in 2012, up from 273 tons in 2011. That’s a 34% increase. More recently, Bloomberg reported this week that the Bank of Korea increased its gold reserves 20%.

ETF Buying: Physical gold remains a big part of many ETFs out there — and not just the popular SPDR Gold Shares (NYSE:GLD) ETF or the iShares Gold Trust ETF (NYSE:IAU). Consider that as of last week, $1.6 billion in new inflows was added to GLD alone. The accessibility provided by ETFs means that many more investors can practically own gold — and thus create more demand for the precious metal, sending prices higher.

Emerging-Market Demand: A Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) analyst, Hussein Allidina, is bullish on gold in 2013 for a host of reasons, but I find this one the most interesting. He writes in a note this week that “the Indian jewelry and investment market is also showing signs of recovery as Indian purchasers acclimate to recent price trends amid restocking ahead of the Indian wedding and festival season.” This argument may hold true for China, too, if the so-called “hard landing” there has indeed been avoided and the consumer class continues to improve.

Upside Targets: I’m not talking the overhyped “$10,000 gold!” headlines either, but the at least semi-rational ravings of big Wall Street investment banks here. BNP Paribas recently cut its gold forecast, but is still expecting a 10% increase in prices from current levels. And analysts’ median forecast for the 2013 year-end gold price has risen from $1,832 as of September to $1,850 currently — a 9% upside on average. Some, like Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), expect much higher, like $2,400 an ounce.

Safe Haven: If the fiscal cliff isn’t resolved and the world continues to face big-time macro risks, gold will be attractive because of its popularity as a “safe haven” investment. If equities are volatile and yields on bonds remain super low, where else can investors turn?

Inflation Fears: If you believe low interest rates and high debt levels will result in a weaker U.S. dollar, then you have to believe in inflation for dollar-denominated commodities like gold. It’s simple math.

The Downside

Gold is not a sure thing, however.

For starters, it’s worth noting that gold isn’t actually much of a safe haven or contrarian investment these days. As I explored in a recent post, correlation is very high right now in the market, and that includes equities and gold performing in kind.

Also, inflation hawks have been beating that drum for a while and hyperinflation has never materialized. Banking on gold because of this trend might not be wise. The dollar continues to hold up, especially as long as the euro remains under pressure, so hyping hyperinflation might not be enough on its own to justify an investment in gold.

And perhaps most interesting, there’s the prospect of economic growth ahead to syphon interest away from gold. A lot of encouraging data is starting to trickle out, including a drop in the headline unemployment rate to 7.7% — the lowest since 2008. Any uptick in economic growth could make gold lose its luster amid other investment opportunities. While there are fears of an anemic first half to 2013, some experts expect the global economy to get its swagger back as early as late 2013.

All this is worth noting. But the time horizon is crucial here, because some folks who are doubting the staying power of gold are looking to 2014 and beyond — and in the short-term, the bull case might hold. In fact, Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) just made a big call saying this is the end of the great bull market in gold — despite at the same time targeting $1,825 in three months, or a decent 90-day profit from current levels of around $1,700.

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Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com and the author of “The Frugal Investor’s Guide to Finding Great Stocks.” Write him at editor@investorplace.com or follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP

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