Loading the player...

From gold exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to gold stocks and buying physical gold, investors now have several different options when it comes to investing in the royal metal. But what exactly is the purpose of gold? And why should investors even bother investing in the gold market? Indeed, these two questions have divided gold investors for the last several decades. One school of thought argues that gold is simply a barbaric relic that no longer holds the monetary qualities of the past. In a modern economic environment, where paper currency is the money of choice, gold's only benefit is the fact that it is a material that is used in jewelry.

On the other end of the spectrum is a school of thought that asserts gold is an asset with various intrinsic qualities that make it unique and necessary for investors to hold in their portfolios. In this article, we will focus on the purpose of gold in the modern era, why it still belongs in investors' portfolios and the different ways to invest in the gold market.

A Brief History of Gold

In order to fully understand the purpose of gold, one must look back to the start of the gold market. While gold's history began in 3000 B.C, when the ancient Egyptians started forming jewelry, it wasn't until 560 B.C. that gold started to act as a currency. At that time, merchants wanted to create a standardized and easily transferable form of money that would simplify trade. The creation of a gold coin stamped with a seal seemed to be the answer, as gold jewelry was already widely accepted and recognized throughout various corners of the earth.

Following the advent of gold as money, its importance continued to grow throughout Europe and the U.K., with relics from the Greek and Roman empires prominently displayed in museums around the world, and Great Britain developing its own metals-based currency in 1066. The British pound (symbolizing a pound of sterling silver), shillings and pence were all based on the amount of gold (or silver) that it represented. Eventually, gold symbolized wealth throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The U.S. government continued on with this gold tradition by establishing a bimetallic standard in 1792. The bimetallic standard simply stated that every monetary unit in the U.S. had to be backed by either gold or silver. For example, one U.S. dollar was the equivalent of 24.75 grains of gold. In other words, the coins that were used as money simply represented the gold (or silver) that was presently deposited at the bank.

But this gold standard did not last forever. During the 1900s, there were several key events that eventually led to the transition of gold out of the monetary system. In 1913, the Federal Reserve was created and started issuing promissory notes (the present day version of our paper money) that could be redeemed in gold on demand. The Gold Reserve Act of 1934 gave the U.S. government title to all the gold coins in circulation and put an end to the minting of any new gold coins. In short, this act began establishing the idea that gold or gold coins were no longer necessary in serving as money. The U.S. abandoned the gold standard in 1971 when its currency ceased to be backed by gold.

The Importance of Gold In the Modern Economy

Given the fact that gold no longer backs the U.S. dollar (or other worldwide currencies for that matter), why is it still important today? The simple answer is that while gold is no longer in the forefront of everyday transactions, it is still important to the global economy. To validate this point, there is no need to look further than the balance sheets of central banks and other financial organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund. Presently, these organizations are responsible for holding approximately one-fifth of the world's supply of above-ground gold. In addition, several central banks have added to their present gold reserves, reflecting concerns about the long-term global economy.

Gold Preserves Wealth

The reasons for gold's importance in the modern economy centers on the fact that it has successfully preserved wealth throughout thousands of generations. The same, however, cannot be said about paper-denominated currencies. To put things into perspective, consider the following example:

Gold, Cash and Inflation
In the early 1970s, one ounce of gold equaled $35. Let's say that at that time, you had a choice of either holding an ounce of gold or simply keeping the $35. They would both buy you the same things, like a brand new business suit or fancy bicycle. However, if you had an ounce of gold today and converted it for today's prices, it would still be enough to buy a brand new suit, but the same cannot be said for the $35. In short, you would have lost a substantial amount of your wealth if you decided to hold the $35 as opposed to the one ounce of gold because the value of gold has increased, while the value of a dollar has been eroded by inflation.

Gold as a Hedge Against a Declining U.S. Dollar and Rising Inflation

The idea that gold preserves wealth is even more important in an economic environment where investors are faced with a declining U.S. dollar and rising inflation. Historically, gold has served as a hedge against both of these scenarios. With rising inflation, gold typically appreciates. When investors realize that their money is losing value, they will start positioning their investments in a hard asset that has traditionally maintained its value. The 1970s present a prime example of rising gold prices in the midst of rising inflation.

The reason gold benefits from a declining U.S. dollar is because gold is priced in U.S. dollars globally. There are two reasons for this relationship. First, investors who are looking at buying gold (i.e., central banks) must sell their U.S. dollars to make this transaction. This ultimately drives the U.S. dollar lower as global investors seek to diversify out of the dollar. The second reason has to do with the fact that a weakening dollar makes gold cheaper for investors who hold other currencies. This results in greater demand from investors who hold currencies that have appreciated relative to the U.S. dollar.

Gold as a Safe Haven

Whether it is the tensions in the Middle East, Africa or elsewhere, it is becoming increasingly obvious that political and economic uncertainty is another reality of our modern economic environment. For this reason, investors typically look at gold as a safe haven during times of political and economic uncertainty. Why is this? Well, history is full of collapsing empires, political coups, and the collapse of currencies. During such times, investors who held gold were able to successfully protect their wealth and, in some cases, even use the commodity to escape from all of the turmoil. Consequently, whenever there are news events that hint at some type of global economic uncertainty, investors will often buy gold as a safe haven.

Gold as a Diversifying Investment

In general, gold is seen as a diversifying investment. It is clear that gold has historically served as an investment that can add a diversifying component to your portfolio, regardless of whether you are worried about inflation, a declining U.S. dollar, or even protecting your wealth. If your focus is simply diversification, gold is not correlated to stocks, bonds and real estate.

Gold as a Dividend-Paying Growth Asset

Gold stocks are typically more appealing to growth investors than to income investors. Gold stocks generally rise and fall with the price of gold, but there are well-managed mining companies that are profitable even when the price of gold is down. Increases in the price of gold are often magnified in gold stock prices. A relatively small increase in the price of gold can lead to significant gains in the best gold stocks and owners of gold stocks typically obtain a much higher return on investment (ROI) than owners of physical gold.

Even those investors focused primarily on growth rather than steady income can benefit from choosing gold stocks that demonstrate historically strong dividend performance. Stocks that pay dividends tend to show higher gains when the sector is rising and fare better – on average, nearly twice as well – than non-dividend-paying stocks when the overall sector is in a downturn.

The mining sector, which includes companies that extract gold, can experience high volatility. When evaluating the dividend performance of gold stocks, consider the company's performance over time in regard to dividends. Factors such as the company's history of paying dividends and the sustainability of its dividend payout ratio are two key elements to examine in the company's balance sheet and other financial statements. A company's ability to sustain healthy dividend payouts is greatly enhanced if it has consistently low debt levels and strong cash flows, and the historical trend of the company's performance shows steadily improving debt and cash flow figures. Since any company goes through growth and expansion cycles when it takes on more debt and has a lower cash on hand balance, it's imperative to analyze their long-term figures rather than a shorter financial picture timeframe.

Different Ways of Owning Gold

One of the main differences between investing in gold several hundred years ago and today is that there are many more investment options, such as:

  • Gold Futures
  • Gold Coins
  • Gold Companies
  • Gold ETFs
  • Gold Mutual Funds
  • Gold Bullion
  • Gold Jewelry

Is There a Bad Time to Invest in Gold?

In order to ascertain the investment merits of gold, let's check its performance against that of the S&P 500 for the past 10 years. Gold has underperformed compared to the S&P 500 in the 10-year period ending Jan. 26, 2018, with the The S&P GSCI index generating 3.27% compared to the The S&P 500, which has returned 10.36% over the same period.

That said, gold trounced the S&P 500 in the 10-year period from November 2002 to October 2012, with a total price appreciation of 441.5%, or 18.4% annually. The S&P 500, on the other hand, appreciated by 58% over this period.

The point here is that gold is not always a good investment. The best time to invest in almost any asset is when there is negative sentiment and the asset is inexpensive, providing substantial upside potential when it returns to favor, as indicated above.

The Bottom Line

There are both advantages and disadvantages to every investment. If you are opposed to holding physical gold, buying shares in a gold mining company may be a safer alternative. If you believe gold could be a safe bet against inflation, investing in coins, bullion, or jewelry are paths that you can take to gold-based prosperity. Lastly, if your primary interest is in using leverage to profit from rising gold prices, the futures market might be your answer, but note that there is a fair amount of risk associated with any leverage-based holdings.

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.