Whether it's behaving like a bull or a bear, the gold market offers high liquidity and excellent opportunities to profit in nearly all environments due to its unique position within the world’s economic and political systems. While many folks choose to own the metal outright, speculating through the futures, equity and options markets offer incredible leverage with measured risk.

Market participants often fail to take full advantage of gold price fluctuations because they haven’t learned the unique characteristics of world gold markets or the hidden pitfalls that can rob profits. In addition, not all investment vehicles are created equally: Some gold instruments are more likely to produce consistent bottom-line results than others.

Trading the yellow metal isn’t hard to learn, but the activity requires skill sets unique to this commodity. Novices should tread lightly, but seasoned investors will benefit by incorporating these four strategic steps into their daily trading routines. Meanwhile, experimenting until the intricacies of these complex markets become second-hand.

1. What Moves Gold

As one of the oldest currencies on the planet, gold has embedded itself deeply into the psyche of the financial world. Nearly everyone has an opinion about the yellow metal, but gold itself reacts only to a limited number of price catalysts. Each of these forces splits down the middle in a polarity that impacts sentiment, volume and trend intensity:

Market players face elevated risk when they trade gold in reaction to one of these polarities, when in fact it's another one controlling price action. For example, say a selloff hits world financial markets, and gold takes off in a strong rally. Many traders assume that fear is moving the yellow metal and jump in, believing the emotional crowd will blindly carry price higher. However, inflation may have actually triggered the stock's decline, attracting a more technical crowd that will sell against the gold rally aggressively.

Combinations of these forces are always in play in world markets, establishing long-term themes that track equally long uptrends and downtrends. For example, the Federal Reserve (FOMC) economic stimulus begun in 2009, initially had little effect on gold because market players were focused on high fear levels coming out of the 2008 economic collapse. However, this quantitative easing encouraged deflation, setting up the gold market and other commodity groups for a major reversal.

That turnaround didn’t happen immediately because a reflation bid was underway, with depressed financial and commodity-based assets spiraling back toward historical means. Gold finally topped out and turned lower in 2011 after reflation was completed and central banks intensified their quantitative easing policies. VIX eased to lower levels at the same time, signaling that fear was no longer a significant market mover.

2. Understand the Crowd

Gold attracts numerous crowds with diverse and often opposing interests. Gold bugs stand at the top of the heap, collecting physical bullion and allocating an outsized portion of family assets to gold equities, options, and futures. These are long-term players, rarely dissuaded by downtrends, who eventually shake out less ideological players. In addition, retail participants comprise nearly the entire population of gold bugs, with few funds devoted entirely to the long side of the precious metal.

Gold bugs add enormous liquidity while keeping a floor under futures and gold stocks because they provide a continuous supply of buying interest at lower prices. They also serve the contrary purpose of providing efficient entry for short sellers, especially in emotional markets when one of the three primary forces polarizes in favor of strong buying pressure.

In addition, gold attracts enormous hedging activity by institutional investors who buy and sell in combination with currencies and bonds in bilateral strategies known as “risk-on” and risk-off.” Funds create baskets of instruments matching growth (risk-on) and safety (risk-off), trading these combinations through lightning-fast algorithms. They are especially popular in highly conflicted markets in which public participation is lower than normal.

3. Read the Long-Term Chart

Gold Monthly Chart

Take time to learn the gold chart inside and out, starting with a long-term history that goes back at least 100 years. In addition to carving out trends that persisted for decades, the metal has also trickled lower for incredibly long periods, denying profits to gold bugs. From a strategic standpoint, this analysis identifies price levels that need to be watched if and when the yellow metal returns to test them.

Gold’s recent history shows little movement until the 1970s, when following the removal of the gold standard for the dollar, it took off in a long uptrend, underpinned by rising inflation due to skyrocketing crude oil prices. After topping out at $2,076 an ounce in February 1980, it turned lower near $700 in the mid-1980s, in reaction to restrictive Federal Reserve monetary policy.

The subsequent downtrend lasted into the late 1990s when gold entered the historic uptrend that culminated in the February 2012 top of $1,916 an ounce. A steady decline since that time has relinquished around 700 points in four years; although in the first quarter of 2016 it surged 17% for its biggest quarterly gain in three decades, as of December 2017, it's trading at $1,267 per ounce.

4. Choose Your Venue

Liquidity follows gold trends, increasing when it’s moving sharply higher or lower and decreasing during relatively quiet periods. This oscillation impacts the futures markets to a greater degree than it does equity markets, due to much lower average participation rates. New products offered by Chicago’s CME Group in recent years haven’t improved this equation substantially.

CME offers three primary gold futures, the 100-oz. a contract, a 50-oz. mini contract and a 10-oz. a micro contract, added in September 2011. While the largest contract's volume was over 67.6 million in 2017, the smaller contracts were not as widely traded; 87,450 for the mini and .05 million for the micro. This thin participation doesn’t impact long-dated futures held for months, but strongly impacts trade execution in short-term positions, forcing higher costs through slippage.

The SPDR Gold Trust Shares (GLD) shows the greatest participation in all types of market environments, with exceptionally tight spreads that can drop to one penny. Average daily volume stood at 2.34 million shares per day in December 2017, offering easy access at any time of day. CBOE options on GLD offer another liquid alternative, with active participation keeping spreads at low levels.

The VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX) grinds through greater daily percentage movement than GLD but carries a higher risk because correlation with the yellow metal can vary greatly from day to day. Large mining companies hedge aggressively against price fluctuations, lowering the impact of spot and futures prices, while operations may hold significant assets in other natural resources, including silver and iron.

Bottom Line

Trade the gold market profitably in four steps. First, learn how three polarities impact the majority of gold buying and selling decisions. Second, familiarize yourself with the diverse crowds that focus on gold trading, hedging, and ownership. Third, take time to analyze the long and short-term gold charts, with an eye on key price levels that may come into play.

Finally, choose your venue for risk-taking, focused on high liquidity and easy trade execution. 

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