October 13th, 2008
12:05 PM GMT
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RAND REFINERY, South Africa – It felt squishy – a bit like stuffing a mulberry into my ear. Still, I persisted and finally the soft foam rubber earplug slid into place. I put the other one into my ear and a muted silence filled my head.

"Mmmm kkkk ppp out," I vaguely heard my colleague Robyn Curnow shouting at me. I cocked my head to one side, and gingerly pulled one of the plugs out. "Mine keeps popping out," she repeated over the banging and clashing of heavy machinery.

I took it from her and showed her how to pinch the end before putting it in your ear. "Thnkks, I kpp sqshhing it the wrong way," I heard her say before we set off into the loud interior of the Rand Refinery, one of the largest gold manufacturers in the world.

Safety is a priority for management and certificates on the walls demonstrate an enviable record in accident-free manhours worked. Still, I couldn't help wondering why we needed earplugs to visit a gold refinery. I mean, after all, what does gold do? It doesn't squeal, or growl, or clatter – well, not that I've owned enough to hear it clatter.

It was only when we walked through the factory that I realized just how much noise and, by extension, effort goes into the production of pure gold (or 'four-nine' gold as the lingo has it here: 99.99 percent pure gold).

The factory is like something out of a giant alchemist's lab. There are flames and what look a little like glowing cauldrons – or more accurately – glowing crucibles, smoking as the molten gold pours out of them into molds. "We have to heat the molds or they would explode as the white hot gold hits them," explained managing director Geoff Millet.

It is hard work, gold refining. The workers are kitted out in in overalls, safety boots, goggles, face masks, gloves – all the gear they need to prevent injuries as they work in shifts around the clock.

The refinery has had to increase production in order to meet the soaring demand for gold as a safe haven while stock markets around the world implode. Traditionally, people turn to gold as a way of staving off economic disaster. No one can be sure what the future holds now but, at the moment, investing in gold coins or bullion is what many people hope will save them and their hard-earned wealth.

Standing in the darkened expanses of the refinery, there is something deeply compelling about watching the red-hot crucible tilt and a stream of molten gold pour out. It glimmers in the shadows, small flames ignite in the air around it. There is something mythical and deeply ancient in the beauty and the hope for power and economic salvation that humans believe it offers.

We were surrounded by billions of dollars worth of gold, but the shelves in the storage vaults were virtually empty because they have been selling off so much of the precious metal.

How long will this hunger for gold last? "I believe the sky's the limit," Geoff Millet told us.

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Filed under: Business

October 13th, 2008
11:18 AM GMT
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LONDON, England - A huge sigh of relief that authorities have been pulling out all the stops to try and restore confidence in the banking system.

Watch me talk about the Business 360 question of the week and your responses to my blogs

Following the plunge in markets last week, governments and central banks had their backs against the wall to do something quickly and something that addressed the central issues.

Investors for now seemed satisfied that leaders finally realised the enormity of the crisis and acted decisively.

This is a critical step and should help relieve some of the funding stresses seen in the credit markets.

As Goldman Sachs put it: "Taken together, the latest moves increase the chances that we will begin to see some relaxation of the intense funding stresses. This is because solvency risk should decline as the government offers protection."

Banks have been reluctant to lend to each other out of concern they won't get paid back, concerns heightened following the failure of Lehman Brothers.

Even well-run companies have found it tougher to get credit. A well functioning banking system is the lifeblood of any economy.

The question is whether the worst of the market rout is over? It's unclear. One thing that is clear, had authorities not taken bold steps over the weekend, the selling would have accelerated, further undermining confidence in governments ability to act and further damaging the financial system and economies.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, it's too late to avoid a global recession. The work of central banks and governments isn't over.

There are expectations that central banks will cut interest rates further and there's pressure on governments to stimulate their economies.

This is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, coming out of it will be a long and painful process.

Do you think the steps governments and authorities have now taken will be enough to restore confidence?

How long do you think the economic downturn could last and how deep could it be?

Do you think stock markets have already fully discounted the worst of a global recession?

Tell me what you think.

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