The Gold/Platinum Disconnect May Be Headed for a Reversal

Gold and platinum usually move in tandem, with platinum typically valued about twice as much as gold. Sometimes this relationship gets off kilter for a short while, but it usually corrects itself quickly.

Gold and platinum prices have been disconnected since the end of 2008.

The unique global economic situation during the past year helped make — and sustain  –this atypical price spread.  Investors bid up gold as they searched for a safe haven for their wealth as platinum prices fell from a drop-off in industrial demand.

Now, as the economy is beginning to improve and investors are beginning to come out of hiding, the platinum-gold connection is ready to be re-established.

But there’s a wrinkle.

South Africa is the home to the largest platinum mines in the world, which produce more than three-quarters of the world’s platinum output,  Workers at the world’s largest platinum mine have been on strike for eight days. This South African mine owned by Impala Platinum Holdings (OTC: IMPUY) extracts 15,000 ounces of platinum each week. Last year it pulled out a million ounces. So far, the strike has cost the mine about 18,000 ounces of production worth more than $22 million.

Workers struck after a pay dispute that began in June. Workers now want a 14% salary increase along with housing and transportation allowances. Impala has made several offers the workers have rejected.

When the strike began, Impala said it could withstand a three-week strike because of its above-ground supply that it can sell to its customers from.

But the labor dispute has expanded. A second Impala mine has gone on strike, and Impala is now losing 3,500 ounces of platinum every day — 24,500 ounces a week. At this rate, the company will exhaust its reserves sooner than expected, perhaps sometime next week.

Impala’s top competitor, Anglo Platinum (OTC: AGPPY), also has run into problems with its work force, which has rejected a pay offer but is not yet striking. Anglo is the world’s No. 1 platinum producer.

Some predict the Impala workers will accept the company’s offer and end the strike.  Other observers suspect the two sides will remain at loggerheads throughout a protracted strike. Workers at a nearby platinum refinery are also prepared to strike, which would have a more drastic effect on not only the company but also the price of platinum. And, to compound the potential problem, Anglo’s workers could also elect to strike, which may so restrict supply as to send platinum to out-of-this-world levels.

The National Union of Mineworkers has said that workers could stay away for weeks or months if their demands aren’t met. So far, Impala’s inventory has helped it weather the strike. But that can’t last forever, and time is running out for Impala.

Buying platinum now gives investors a great potential upside in the near term. And, if Impala does manage to smooth things out with the workers, there is little current downside risk because platinum prices are already depressed relative to gold.

The long-term trend for platinum appears to be upward. Industrial output will improve, and platinum will once again re-establish its parity with gold.

There are two pure platinum ETFs to choose from in the United States. UBS E-TRACS CMCI Long Platinum Total Return (NYSE: PTM) and iPath Dow Jones AIG Platinum Total Return Sub Index (NYSE: PGM) track platinum using futures contracts.