When Britain voted to leave the European Union, the thoughts of Yorkshire teacher Grace Hall immediately turned to her family’s bottom line.
Three days later, as UK stocks and sterling plummeted, she put those thoughts into action and deposited part of her life savings — 25,000 pounds — into gold.
“My husband and I are both worried about bank failures and our cash getting swallowed up,” she said. “I’m also worried about our kids’ jobs and their future.”
Hall was not alone. Dealers are seeing an unprecedented amount of interest in gold, much of it from first-time buyers, to take advantage of its role as a safe haven in times of stress or unexpected “black swan” events like Brexit.
“The speed at which people are purchasing gold is unprecedented,” said Joshua Saul, CEO of The Pure Gold Company, where Hall bought and keeps her Britannia coins.
“We are seeing people convert as much as 40 to 50 percent of their net worth into physical gold, (compared to) 5 to 10 percent in the past,” he said.
Government-owned bar and coin producer, the Royal Mint, saw a 7-fold increase in sales of 100-gram bars, around half the size of a credit card and costing around $4,400, in the two weeks following the June 23 vote.
Around 4 million pounds ($5.5 million) of gold and silver were traded online on the platform of London-based Bullionvault.com on the June 25-26 weekend, seven times the average weekend of the previous 12 months.
The number of first-time UK buyers on the site rose by around 170 percent in June and the first week of July, compared to the previous 12-month daily average, it said.
The surge in gold buying is in contrast with Brexit’s effect on the London property market, considered an ironclad bet for the past 20 years. More than 18 billion pounds of property funds aimed at retail investors was frozen in early July following a tide of redemption requests after the Brexit vote.
One London-based property developer said the current sense of panic over the UK financial system was unlike anything he had ever seen.
“I just can’t believe what’s going on,” he said, asking not to be named. “Projects that were meant to happen now haven’t and the last thing I would do right now is buy another property.”
Instead, he has bought £350,000 worth of gold and plans to hold it for at least the next two years.
No Signs of Decline
It’s not the first time Britons have turned to gold — dealers saw buying surge in the initial phases of the subprime crisis at the end of 2008 and during Europe’s debt crisis in 2012 and 2013. But the interest dissipated quickly, the dealers said. This time could be different.
“This shows little sign of declining,” the Royal Mint said in a statement. Half of the buyers choose to store the metal in the mint’s vault, it said.
Gold has played a central role in trade and exchange over the centuries, with bullion coins circulating as currency in several countries until World War One. During the time of the “gold standard” of the 19th century, nearly all countries fixed their currencies against a specified amount of gold.
Countries like Germany, with its experience of hyperinflation, have maintained a historical connection to gold as a tangible asset that can protect wealth against economic downturns and currency fluctuations.
German consumers buy more than 100 tonnes of gold coins and bars a year and spent around $4.6 billion on gold in 2015.
British interest in gold, by contrast, has been lukewarm in modern times because of the pound’s role as a global reserve currency, even when sterling was tested by crashing out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992.
Britain ranks 15th among the biggest consumers of gold bars and coins.
“In Germany’s economic history between 1922 and 1961, some people lived through three or four expropriations or collapses of wealth, so there is an embedded sense of caution,” said Brian Lucey, Professor of Finance at Trinity College Dublin.
“The UK is not at that level at all but certainly continued gold retail buying is another indicator of the effect that Brexit has had,” he said.
Adam Cleary, 42, bought gold ahead of the referendum to protect himself from the event of a Brexit vote but also because of his distrust of the banking system.
He explained the attraction by harking back to the old days of trade.
“It cannot be canceled, it cannot be confiscated, it cannot be taken away,” he said in the showroom of dealer Sharps Pixley, where investors can keep their investments in safety deposit boxes.