SINGAPORE - With gold at last piercing a new high, investors may next turn their attention to silver, which now looks overdue for a rally even as it and other metals remain constrained by a halting global industrial recovery.
Often dubbed bullion's bridesmaid, silver is now trading at near its lowest ratio to gold in a year, slipping to around the equivalent of 59 units per ounce of gold, just above September's low and down more than a quarter from the peak in late 2008.
Signs are emerging of investors seeking an alternative to gold -- which hit a lifetime high of $1,048.20 an ounce on Wednesday, surpassing the previous record in March 2008 -- as a hedge against inflation and a falling dollar.
India's HDFC Bank, a large seller of gold in the world's top consumer of the metal, is looking at offering silver bars for sale in some cities because of interest from investors, a bank executive said on Wednesday.
"If it does move higher, you'd expect silver to outperform. The last time gold hit its high, silver was trading at $20. It's got a lot of catching up to do," said Mark Hewlett, a commodity analyst at Cornhill Capital in London.
Silver was little changed at $17.44 on Wednesday, moving closer to a 13-month peak of $17.63 in the middle of September but nearly 19 percent below its record high of $21.24 from March 17, 2008, the same time gold last peaked.
Unlike gold, investment into the world's largest silver-backed exchange-traded fund, the iShares Silver Trust, has flatlined for the past three months, while gold inflows have boosted ETF holdings to near record highs. Silver holdings were unchanged at 8,594.22 tons.
But like gold, silver has also witnessed a surge in speculative long investment on the Comex futures exchange.
Physical trading was muted in Hong Kong, with silver bars offered at a discount of 10 to 20 U.S. cents to the spot London prices, barely changed from last week.
"Physical demand for gold will definitely slow down because of the high prices. Platinum is still expensive, so probably people would like to buy silver because it's cheaper," said a physical dealer in Hong Kong.
"But I still have doubts because most investors see silver as an industrial metal," he added.
PLATINUM: INDUSTRIAL WOES, INVESTMENT FLOWS
Industrial applications accounted for half of global demand for silver last year, followed by jewelry and photography, while implied net investment demand made up a mere 5.6 percent, according to the Silver Institute.
Platinum, which is also used in jewelry, has been hit hardest by falling demand from automakers, as the industry suffered heavily during the economic meltdown. Autocatalysts accounted for around half of global consumption last year.
Platinum rose 1.33 percent to $1,331 an ounce on Wednesday -- still 42 percent below last year's all time high -- but it too may be due for a repricing.
"If the expectation is that gold rallies from here, platinum may have a U.S. ETF in the near future which will bring a lot of investment demand which could mop up the excess supply left by poor car sales," said Hewlett of Cornhill Capital.
"This could see it out-perform silver as the silver ETF is already alive and kicking."
While gains in other precious metals may be overdue, analysts were agreed that, ultimately, there was no substitute for gold.
"It's difficult to see to reasons to sell it, given we're seeing a continuation in the weakening of the U.S. dollar," said Darren Heathcote, head of trading at Investec Australia.