by Gallup, which found that 34 percent of Americans thought that
gold was the best long-term investment, more than any other
investment category, including real estate and mutual funds.
It is hard to know just how much money ordinary Americans plowed into gold, given the array of investment vehicles, including government-minted coins, publicly traded commodity funds, mining company stocks and physical bullion. But $5 billion that flowed into gold-focused mutual funds in 2009 and 2010, according to Morningstar, an investment research firm, helped the funds reach a peak value of $26.3 billion. Since hitting a peak in April 2011, those funds have lost half of their value.
"Gold is very much a psychological market," said William O'Neill, a co-founder of the research firm Logic Advisors, which told its investors to get out of all gold positions in December after having recommended the investment for years. "Unless there is some unforeseen development, I think the market is going lower."
Gold's abrupt reversal has also been painful for companies that were cashing in on the gold craze. In the past year, two gold- focused mutual funds were liquidated after years of new fund openings, Morningstar data show. Perhaps the most famous company to come out of the 2011 gold rush, the retail trading company Goldline, has drastically cut back its advertising on cable television, lowering spending to $3.7 million from $17.8 million in 2010, according to Kantar Media.
Goldline agreed to pay $4.5 million last year to settle charges brought by the city attorney of Santa Monica, California, accusing the company of running a bait-and-switch operation. Goldline did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
But the worst news for gold is probably good news for the broader economy, which, though still struggling to grow, has recovered from its lows.
"As the economy improves, the demand for gold as a financial hedge declines more than the fundamental demand for gold jewelry increases," said Daniel J. Arbess, a partner at Perella Weinberg Partners, who sold off his fund's large stake in gold in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Investment professionals, who have focused many of their bets on gold exchange-traded funds, or E.T.F.'s, have been faster than retail investors to catch wind of gold's changing fortune. The outflow at the most popular E.T.F., the SPDR Gold Shares, was the biggest of any E.T.F. in the first quarter of this year as hedge funds and traders pulled out $6.6 billion, according to the data firm IndexUniverse. Two prominent hedge fund managers who had taken big positions in gold E.T.F.'s, George Soros and Louis M. Bacon, sold in the past quarter of 2012, according to recent regulatory filings.
"Gold was destroyed as a safe haven, proved to be unsafe," Mr. Soros said in an interview last week with The South China Morning Post of Hong Kong. "Because of the disappointment, most people are reducing their holdings of gold."
Gold's most vocal bulls say gold doubters are losing faith too easily. Peter Schiff, the chief executive of the investment firm Euro Pacific Capital, said that he still expected gold to hit $5,000 an ounce within a few years because, he said, the world is headed for a period of dangerous hyperinflation.
"People believe the U.S. economy is recovering. It's not," said Mr. Schiff.
The most famous investor who is standing by gold is John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who made a fortune betting against the U.S. housing market. His $900 million gold fund reportedly dropped 26 percent in the first two months of this year.
Mr. Paulson's losses were particularly severe because he had bet heavily on gold mining companies, which have fallen more sharply than gold itself.
Mr. Norstog, in Pocatello, made a similar mistake. He put his money in a gold fund that was focused on mining company stocks.
"If I had to do it all over again, I would have just bought the gold," Mr. Norstog said. "At least that way I could have run my fingers through the glittering coins."
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