Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) give traders access to the percentage price movements of physical gold, without having to buy physical gold or futures contracts. Instead, the ETF does this for the investor.

Gold ETFs are typically structured as a trust. Under this structure, the ETF holds a certain amount of gold for each share of the ETF that is issued. Buying a share means owning a portion of the gold held by the trust.

The SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) is the most popular gold ETF, averaging close to 10 million shares per day in volume. According to SPDR, each share is worth 0.095599 gold ounces (Net Asset Value, called NAV). This is why the ETF trades at approximately 1/10 the price of gold. As the price of actual gold fluctuates, so does the price of GLD. Since GLD is publicly traded, investors may push the price above, or the below NAV, meaning the shares may be worth slightly more or less than 0.95599 gold ounces.

The 0.095599 gold ounces each share is worth is eroded slightly over time. The ETF charges a 0.4% yearly fee to investors. This compensates those running the fund for the service provided. These fees slowly erode the NAV of the ETF, thus slightly reducing the gold ounces each share is worth over time. This is a slow process, though, and 0.4% is a much lower fee than most gold dealers charge for buying physical gold. Therefore, gold ETFs are an efficient vehicle for investing in gold.

Another popular gold ETF is the iShares Gold Trust (IAU). Its average volume is approximately 8 million shares per day. It has a 0.25% expense ratio and trades at approximately 1/100 the price of gold. It also holds gold in trust and has a similar structure to GLD.

These types of funds, which hold physical gold in confidence, tend to move in line with the price of gold over the short-term and long-term, with only minor tracking errors (when the fund deviates from the price it should be trading at based on the price of gold).

Inverse and Leveraged Funds

There are a number of other gold ETFs, but volume is significantly less than the two mentioned above. There are leveraged and inverse gold funds, though. The Velocity Shares 3x Long Gold ETN (UGLD) provides exposure to three times the daily movement of gold futures contracts. Its expense ratio is 1.35%, and average volume is approximately 700,000 shares.

The Gold Double Short ETN (DZZ) trades approximately 500,000 shares a day, has a 0.75% expense ratio and moves inversely to gold prices. If gold moves up 1% today, DZZ should drop by 2%, because it moves double, in the opposite direction.

Leveraged and inverse funds are more complex since they don't hold physical gold in trust. ETNs are debt obligations of the underwriter of the ETN. The value of the ETN tracks a commodity index but is only backed by the credit-worthiness of the underwriter. These complex instruments are intended for short-term trades since they only accurately track gold's daily price changes, not long-term changes. Therefore, over time, the leveraged and inverse funds could significantly deviate from where an investor would expect them to trade based on the price of the gold.

The Bottom Line

Gold ETFs operating as trusts are straightforward. The trust holds gold and issues shares. The shareholder has fractional ownership of that gold. The shares reflect the price movement of actual gold, but typically at 1/10 or 1/100 of the price. The amount of gold each share is worth is slowly eroded by the expense ratio, but ETFs are still typically more efficient than buying physical gold and storing it. Inverse and leveraged ETNs are more complex. They track the daily price movement of gold, moving inversely or magnifying the gain/loss, but won't accurately track long-term price changes in gold.

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