From the time of ancient civilizations to the modern era, gold has been the world's currency of choice. Today, investors buy gold mainly as a hedge against political unrest and inflation because of gold's low correlations with other asset classes. In addition, many top investment advisers recommend a portfolio allocation in commodities, including gold, in order to lower overall portfolio risk.
There are many opportunities to invest in gold, including bullion (i.e., gold bars), mutual funds, futures, mining companies, and jewelry. With few exceptions, only bullion, futures, and a handful of specialty funds provide a direct investment opportunity in gold. Other investments derive part of their value from other sources.
- Gold is a precious metal that can also serve as an inflation hedge and portfolio diversifier.
- If you've decided to buy some gold for your investment portfolio, there are several ways to go about it.
- The most direct way to own gold is to purchase physical gold bars or coins, but these can be illiquid and must be stored securely.
- Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds that track the price of gold are also popular, and if you have access to derivatives markets in your brokerage account, you can buy gold futures and options.
- To get at gold indirectly, you may also want to consider investing in gold mining stocks, although these companies' share prices do not track gold's value very well over the long run.
This is perhaps the best-known form of direct gold ownership. Many people think of gold bullion as the large gold bars held at Fort Knox. Actually, gold bullion is any form of pure, or nearly pure, gold that has been certified for its weight and purity. This includes coins, bars, and other forms of gold of any size. A serial number is commonly attached to gold bars as well, for security purposes.
While heavy gold bars are an impressive sight, their large size (up to 400 troy ounces) makes them illiquid, and therefore costly to buy and sell. After all, if you own one large gold bar worth $100,000 as your entire holding in gold, and then decide to sell 10%, you can't exactly saw off the end of the bar and sell it. On the other hand, bullion held in smaller-sized bars and coins provides much more liquidity and is quite common among gold owners.
For decades, large quantities of gold coins have been issued by sovereign governments around the world. Coins are commonly bought by investors from private dealers at a premium of about 1% to 5% above their underlying gold value, but in recent years the premium has jumped to around 10% in some cases.
The advantages of bullion coins are:
- Their prices are conveniently available in global financial publications.
- Gold coins are often minted in smaller sizes (one ounce or less), making them a more convenient way to invest in gold than the larger bars.
- Reputable dealers can be found with minimal searching and are located in many large cities.
Older, rare gold coins have what is known as numismatic or "collector's" value above and beyond the underlying value of the gold. To invest strictly in gold, focus on widely circulated coins and leave the rare coins to collectors.
Some of the widely circulated gold coins include the South African Krugerrand, the U.S. Eagle, and the Canadian Maple Leaf.
The main problems with gold bullion are that the storage and insurance costs and the relatively large markup from the dealer both hinder profit potential. Also, buying gold bullion is a direct investment in gold's value, and each dollar change in the price of gold will proportionally change the value of one's holdings. Other gold investments, such as mutual funds, may be made in smaller dollar amounts than bullion and also may not have as much direct price exposure as bullion does.
Gold ETFs and Mutual Funds
One alternative to a direct purchase of gold bullion is to invest in one of the gold-based exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Each share of these specialized instruments represents a fixed amount of gold, such as one-tenth of an ounce. These funds may be purchased or sold just like stocks, in any brokerage or individual retirement account (IRA). This method is, therefore, easier and more cost-effective than owning bars or coins directly, especially for small investors, as the minimum investment is only the price of a single share of the ETF. The annual average expense ratios of these funds are often around 0.57%, much less than the fees and expenses on many other investments, including most mutual funds.
Many mutual funds own gold bullion and gold companies as part of their normal portfolios, but investors should be aware that only a few mutual funds focus solely on gold investing; most own a number of other commodities. The major advantages of the gold-only mutual funds are:
- Low cost and low minimum investment required
- Diversification among different companies
- Ease of ownership in a brokerage account or an IRA
- No individual company research needed
Some funds invest in the indexes of mining companies and others are tied directly to gold prices. Still others are actively managed. Read their prospectuses for more information. Traditional mutual funds tend to be actively managed, while ETFs adhere to a passive index-tracking strategy and therefore have lower expense ratios. For the average gold investor, however, mutual funds and ETFs are now generally the easiest and safest way to invest in gold.
Gold Futures and Options
Futures are contracts to buy or sell a given amount of an item—in this case, gold—on a particular date in the future. Futures contracts are standardized and represent a predetermined amount of gold. As this amount can be large (for example, 100 troy ounces x $1,000/ounce = $100,000), futures are more suitable for experienced investors. People often use futures because the commissions are very low, and the margin requirements are much below traditional equity investments. Some contracts settle in dollars, while others settle in gold, so investors must pay attention to the contract specifications to avoid having to take delivery of 100 ounces of gold on the settlement date.
Options on futures are an alternative to buying a futures contract outright. These give the owner of the option the right to buy the futures contract within a certain time frame, at a preset price. One benefit of an option is that it both leverages your original investment and limits losses from the price paid. A futures contract bought on margin can require more capital than originally invested if losses mount quickly.
Unlike a futures investment, which is based on the current value of gold, the downside to an option is that the investor must pay a premium to the underlying value of the gold to own the option. Because of the volatile nature of futures and options, they may be unsuitable for many investors. Even so, futures remain the cheapest (commissions + interest expense) way to buy or sell gold when investing large sums.
Gold Mining Companies
Companies that specialize in mining and refining will also profit from a rising gold price. Investing in these types of companies can be an effective way to profit from gold and can also carry lower risk than other investment methods.
The largest gold mining companies boast extensive global operations; therefore, business factors common to many other large companies play into the success of such an investment. As a result, these companies can still show a profit in times of flat or declining gold prices. One way they do this is by hedging against a fall in gold prices as a normal part of their business. Some do this, and some don't.
Even so, gold mining companies may provide a safer way to invest in gold than through direct ownership of bullion. At the same time, the research into and selection of individual companies requires due diligence on the investor's part. As this is a time-consuming endeavor, it may not be feasible for many investors.
About 49% of global gold production is used to make jewelry. With the world's population and wealth growing annually, demand for gold used in jewelry production should increase over time. On the other hand, gold jewelry buyers are shown to be somewhat price-sensitive, buying less if the price rises swiftly.
Buying fine jewelry at retail prices involves a substantial markup—up to 300% or more over the underlying value of the gold. Better jewelry bargains may be found at estate sales and auctions. The advantage of buying jewelry this way is that there is no retail markup; the disadvantage is the time spent searching for valuable pieces.
Nonetheless, jewelry ownership provides an enjoyable way to own gold, even if it is not the most profitable from an investment standpoint. As an art form, gold jewelry is beautiful. As an investment, it is mediocre—unless you are the jeweler.
Gold as a Diversifier
Given gold's low correlation with other types of investment assets, investing in the precious metal traditionally has been considered as a hedge against economic downturns. In particular, gold's correlation with stock market performance has historically remained low, and gold tends to move in the opposite direction versus the dollar. This means that periods of dollar weakness could spell strength for gold prices.
The potential benefits of gold as a hedge against declines in other asset classes may come to the forefront of investors' minds when facing the likelihood of a recession. Based on historical data, gold prices generally increase when inflation-adjusted bond yields decline. This suggests that there may be some wisdom in allocating a portion of your portfolio to gold as a cushion against rough patches for economic growth.
What Is the Best Way to Invest in Gold?
Finding the most suitable gold investment for your portfolio depends on your resources and investment goals. Larger investors looking for direct exposure may opt to invest in gold bullion, but this involves paying a premium and storage costs. ETFs and mutual funds that track the price of gold offer low-cost exposure with low minimum investments. However, because funds vary in their investment strategies and expense ratios, it's important to do your research before buying these shares. Investing in gold mining companies can provide another form of exposure to the metal, but these stocks don't always track gold's long-term performance very closely. Finally, buying jewelry can be a satisfying way to own gold, although it is less likely to generate investment profits.
How Do Beginners Invest in Gold?
Mutual funds and ETFs are generally the easiest and safest ways to invest in gold. Each share of these securities represents a fixed amount of gold, and you can easily buy or sell these funds in your brokerage or retirement account. Gold mutual funds and ETFs are a good choice for beginning investors because of their low cost and low minimum investment requirements.
Is Gold a Good Investment During a Recession?
Because gold historically has shown a low correlation with other types of investment assets, many investors include gold in their portfolios as a buffer against potential economic downturns. Gold prices generally increase when bond yields decline. While there may be benefits to investing in gold in a recessionary environment, its effectiveness during a recession or any other stage of the economic cycle will depend on how it fits into your overall investment strategy.
The Bottom Line
Larger investors wishing to have direct exposure to the price of gold may prefer to invest in gold directly through bullion. There is also a level of comfort found in owning a physical asset instead of simply a piece of paper. The downside is the slight premium to the value of gold paid on the initial purchase, as well as the storage costs.
For investors who are a bit more aggressive, futures and options will certainly do the trick. But, buyer beware: These investments are derivatives of gold's price, and they can experience sharp moves up and down, especially when done on margin. On the other hand, futures are probably the most efficient way to invest in gold, except for the fact that contracts must be rolled over periodically as they expire.
The idea that jewelry is an investment is storied but naive. There is too much of a spread between the price of most jewelry and its gold value for it to be considered a true investment. Instead, the average gold investor should consider gold-oriented mutual funds and ETFs, as these securities generally provide the easiest and safest way to invest in gold.