Why Gold is Money
The economist John Maynard Keynes famously called gold a “barbarous relic”, suggesting that its usefulness as money is an artifact of the past. In an era filled with cashless transactions and hundreds of cryptocurrencies, this statement seems truer today than in Keynes’ time.
However, gold also possesses elemental properties that has made it an ideal metal for money throughout history.
Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer from Columbia University, broke down the periodic table to show why gold has been used as a monetary metal for thousands of years.
The Periodic Table
The periodic table organizes 118 elements in rows by increasing atomic number (periods) and columns (groups) with similar electron configurations.
Just as in today’s animation, let’s apply the process of elimination to the periodic table to see why gold is money:
- Gases and Liquids
Noble gases (such as argon and helium), as well as elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and chlorine are gaseous at room temperature and standard pressure. Meanwhile, mercury and bromine are liquids. As a form of money, these are implausible and impractical.
- Lanthanides and Actinides
Next, lanthanides and actinides are both generally elements that can decay and become radioactive. If you were to carry these around in your pocket they could irradiate or poison you.
- Alkali and Alkaline-Earth Metals
Alkali and alkaline earth metals are located on the left-hand side of the periodic table, and are highly reactive at standard pressure and room temperature. Some can even burst into flames.
- Transition, Post Transition Metals, and Metalloids
There are about 30 elements that are solid, nonflammable, and nontoxic. For an element to be used as money it needs to be rare, but not too rare. Nickel and copper, for example, are found throughout the Earth’s crust in relative abundance.
- Super Rare and Synthetic Elements
Osmium only exists in the Earth’s crust from meteorites. Meanwhile, synthetic elements such as rutherfordium and nihonium must be created in a laboratory.
Once the above elements are eliminated, there are only five precious metals left: platinum, palladium, rhodium, silver and gold. People have used silver as money, but it tarnishes over time. Rhodium and palladium are more recent discoveries, with limited historical uses.
Platinum and gold are the remaining elements. Platinum’s extremely high melting point would require a furnace of the Gods to melt back in ancient times, making it impractical. This leaves us with gold. It melts at a lower temperature and is malleable, making it easy to work with.
Gold as Money
Gold does not dissipate into the atmosphere, it does not burst into flames, and it does not poison or irradiate the holder. It is rare enough to make it difficult to overproduce and malleable to mint into coins, bars, and bricks. Civilizations have consistently used gold as a material of value.
Perhaps modern societies would be well-served by looking at the properties of gold, to see why it has served as money for millennia, especially when someone’s wealth could disappear in a click.
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Explainer: What Key Factors Influence Gas Prices?
To help understand what’s happening at the pump, it’s important to first know what key factors dictate the price of gas.
Explainer: What Key Factors Influence Gas Prices?
Across the United States, the cost of gas has been a hot topic of conversation lately, as prices reach record-breaking highs.
The national average now sits at $5.00 per gallon, and by the end of summer, this figure could grow to $6 per gallon, according to estimates by JPMorgan.
But before we can have an understanding of what’s happening at the pump, it’s important to first know what key factors dictate the price of gas.
This graphic, using data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), outlines the main components that influence gas prices, providing each factor’s proportional impact on price.
The Four Main Factors
According to the EIA, there are four main factors that influence the price of gas:
- Crude oil prices (54%)
- Refining costs (14%)
- Taxes (16%)
- Distribution, and marketing costs (16%)
More than half the cost of filling your tank is influenced by the price of crude oil. Meanwhile, the rest of the price at the pump is split fairly equally between refining costs, marketing and distribution, and taxes.
Let’s look at each factor in more depth.
Crude Oil Prices
The most influential factor is the cost of crude oil, which is largely dictated by international supply and demand.
Despite being the world’s largest oil producer, the U.S. remains a net importer of crude oil, with the majority coming from Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. Because of America’s reliance on imports, U.S. gas prices are largely influenced by the global crude oil market.
A number of geopolitical factors can influence the crude oil market, but one of the biggest influences is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia.
Established in 1960, OPEC was created to combat U.S. dominance of the global oil market. OPEC sets production targets for its 13 member countries, and historically, oil prices have been linked to changes in OPEC production. Today, OPEC countries are responsible for about 60% of internationally traded petroleum.
Oil needs to be refined into gasoline before it can be used by consumers, which is why refining costs are factored into the price of gas.
The exact cost of refining varies, depending on a number of factors such as the type of crude oil used, the processing technology available at the refinery, and the gasoline requirements in specific parts of the country.
In general, refining capacity in the U.S. has not been keeping up with oil demand. Several refineries shut down throughout the pandemic, but even before COVID-19, refining capacity in the U.S. was lagging behind demand. Incredibly, there haven’t been any brand-new refining facilities built in the country since 1977.
In the U.S., taxes also play a critical role in determining the price of gas.
Across America, the average gasoline tax is $0.57 per gallon, however, the exact amount fluctuates from state to state. Here’s a look at the top five states with the highest gas taxes:
|Rank||State||Gas tax (per gallon)|
*Note: figures include both state and federal tax
States with high gas taxes usually spend the extra money on improvements to their infrastructure or local transportation. For instance, Illinois doubled its gas taxes in 2019 as part of a $45 billion infrastructure plan.
California, the state with the highest tax on gas, is expecting to see a rate increase this July, which will drive gas prices up by around three cents per gallon.
Distribution and Marketing Costs
Lastly, the costs of distribution and marketing have an impact on the price of gas.
Gasoline is typically shipped from refineries to local terminals via pipelines. From there, the gasoline is processed further to ensure it meets market requirements or local government standards.
Gas stations then distribute the final product to the consumer. The cost of running a gas station varies—some gas stations are owned and operated by brand-name refineries like Chevron, while others are smaller-scale operations owned by independent merchants.
The big-name brands run a lot of advertisements. According to Morning Consult, Chevron, BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp., and Royal Dutch Shell PLC aired TV advertisements in the U.S. more than 44,495 times between June 1, 2020, and Aug. 31, 2021.
How Does the Russia-Ukraine Conflict Impact U.S. Gas Prices?
If only a fraction of America’s oil comes from Russia, why is the Russia-Ukraine conflict impacting prices in the U.S.?
Because oil is bought and sold on a global commodities market. So, when countries imposed sanctions on Russian oil, that put a squeeze on global supply, which ultimately drove up prices.
This supply shock could keep prices high for a while unless the U.S. falls into a recession, which is a growing possibility based on how recent data is trending.
Mapped: The 10 Largest Gold Mines in the World, by Production
Where in the world are the largest gold mines?
The 10 Largest Gold Mines in the World, by Production
Gold mining is a global business, with hundreds of mining companies digging for the precious metal in dozens of countries.
But where exactly are the largest gold mines in the world?
The above infographic uses data compiled from S&P Global Market Intelligence and company reports to map the top 10 gold-producing mines in 2021.
Editor’s Note: The article uses publicly available global production data from the World Gold Council to calculate the production share of each mine. The percentages slightly differ from those calculated by S&P.
The Top Gold Mines in 2021
The 10 largest gold mines are located across nine different countries in North America, Oceania, Africa, and Asia.
Together, they accounted for around 13 million ounces or 12% of global gold production in 2021.
|Rank||Mine||Location||Production (ounces)||% of global production|
|#1||Nevada Gold Mines||🇺🇸 U.S.||3,311,000||2.9%|
|#5||Pueblo Viejo||🇩🇴 Dominican Republic||814,000||0.7%|
|#6||Kibali||🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo||812,000||0.7%|
|#8||Lihir||🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||737,082||0.6%|
|#9||Canadian Malartic||🇨🇦 Canada||714,784||0.6%|
Share of global gold production is based on 3,561 tonnes (114.5 million troy ounces) of 2021 production as per the World Gold Council.
In 2019, the world’s two largest gold miners—Barrick Gold and Newmont Corporation—announced a historic joint venture combining their operations in Nevada. The resulting joint corporation, Nevada Gold Mines, is now the world’s largest gold mining complex with six mines churning out over 3.3 million ounces annually.
Uzbekistan’s state-owned Muruntau mine, one of the world’s deepest open-pit operations, produced just under 3 million ounces, making it the second-largest gold mine. Muruntau represents over 80% of Uzbekistan’s overall gold production.
Only two other mines—Grasberg and Olimpiada—produced more than 1 million ounces of gold in 2021. Grasberg is not only the third-largest gold mine but also one of the largest copper mines in the world. Olimpiada, owned by Russian gold mining giant Polyus, holds around 26 million ounces of gold reserves.
Polyus was also recently crowned the biggest miner in terms of gold reserves globally, holding over 104 million ounces of proven and probable gold between all deposits.
How Profitable is Gold Mining?
The price of gold is up by around 50% since 2016, and it’s hovering near the all-time high of $2,000/oz.
That’s good news for gold miners, who achieved record-high profit margins in 2020. For every ounce of gold produced in 2020, gold miners pocketed $828 on average, significantly higher than the previous high of $666/oz set in 2011.
With inflation rates hitting decade-highs in several countries, gold mining could be a sector to watch, especially given gold’s status as a traditional inflation hedge.
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