For the hard-asset enthusiast, the gold-silver ratio is common parlance. For the average investor, it represents an arcane metric that is anything but well-known. The fact is that a substantial profit potential exists in some established strategies that rely on this ratio. Effectively, the gold-silver ratio represents the number of ounces of silver it takes to buy a single ounce of gold. Here's how investors benefit from trading based on observed changes in this ratio.

Key Takeaways

  • Investors use the gold-silver ratio to determine the relative value of silver to gold.
  • Investors who anticipate where the ratio is going to move can make a profit even if the price of the two metals fall or rise.
  • The gold-silver ratio used to be set by governments for monetary stability, but now fluctuates.
  • Alternatives to trading the gold-silver ratio include futures, ETFs, options, pool accounts, and bullion.

What Is the Gold-Silver Ratio?

The gold-silver ratio, also known as the mint ratio, refers to the relative value of an ounce of silver to an equal weight of gold. Put simply, it is the quantity of silver in ounces needed to buy a single ounce of gold. Traders can use it to diversify the amount of precious metal they hold in their portfolio.

Here's how it works. When gold trades at $500 per ounce and silver at $5, traders refer to a gold-silver ratio of 100:1. Similarly, if the price of gold is $1,000 per ounce and silver is trading at $20, the ratio is 50:1. Today, the ratio floats and can swing wildly. That's because gold and silver are valued daily by market forces, but this has not always been the case. The ratio has been permanently set at different times in history and in different places, by governments seeking monetary stability.

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Gold-Silver Ratio History

The gold-silver ratio has fluctuated in modern times and never remains the same. That's mainly due to the fact that the prices of these precious metals experience wild swings on a regular, daily basis. But before the 20th century, governments set the ratio as part of their monetary stability policies. For hundreds of years prior to that time, the ratio, often set by governments for purposes of monetary stability, was fairly steady, ranging between 12:1 and 15:1. The Roman Empire officially set the ratio at 12:1. The U.S. government fixed the ratio at 15:1 with the Coinage Act of 1792.

During the 19th Century, the United States was one of many countries that adopted a bi-metallic standard monetary systems, where the value of a country's monetary unit was established by the mint ratio. But the era of the fixed ratio ended in the 20th century as nations moved away from the bi-metallic currency standard and, eventually, off the gold standard entirely. Since then, the prices of gold and silver trade independently of one another in the free market.

Here's a quick overview of the history of this ratio:

  • 2020: For the year, the gold-silver ratio peaked at 114.
  • 1991: When silver hit record lows, the ratio peaked at nearly 100.
  • 1980: At the time of the last great surge in gold and silver, the ratio stood at about 15.
  • 1792-1834: The U.S. operated a bimetallic standard, with a fixed ratio of 15.
  • 1834-1862: Congress then moved to change the ratio to 16.
  • Roman Empire: The ratio was set at about 12.

Importance of Gold-Silver Ratio

Despite not having a fixed ratio, the gold-silver ratio is still a popular tool for precious metals traders. They can, and still do, use it to hedge their bets in both metals—taking a long position in one, while keeping a short position in the other metal. So when the ratio is higher, and investors believe it will drop along with the price of gold compared to silver, they may decide to buy silver and take a short position in the same amount of gold.

So why is this ratio so important for investors and traders? If they can anticipate where the ratio is going to move, investors can make a profit even if the price of the two metals fall or rise.

Investors can make a profit, even if the price of the two metals fall or rise, by anticipating where the ratio will move.

How to Trade the Gold-Silver Ratio

Trading the gold-silver ratio is an activity primarily undertaken by hard-asset enthusiasts often called gold bugs. Why? Because the trade is predicated on accumulating greater quantities of metal rather than increasing dollar-value profits. Sound confusing? Let's look at an example.

The essence of trading the gold-silver ratio is to switch holdings when the ratio swings to historically determined extremes. So:

  1. When a trader possesses one ounce of gold and the ratio rises to an unprecedented 100, the trader would sell their single gold ounce for 100 ounces of silver.
  2. When the ratio then contracted to an opposite historical extreme of 50, for example, the trader would then sell their 100 ounces for two ounces of gold.
  3. In this manner, the trader continues to accumulate quantities of metal seeking extreme ratio numbers to trade and maximize holdings.

Note that no dollar value is considered when making the trade. That's because the relative value of the metal is considered unimportant.

For those worried about devaluation, deflation, currency replacement, and even war, the strategy makes sense. Precious metals have a proven record of maintaining their value in the face of any contingency that might threaten the worth of a nation's fiat currency.

Drawbacks of the Ratio Trade

The difficulty with the trade is correctly identifying the extreme relative valuations between the metals. If the ratio hits 100 and an investor sells gold for silver, and the ratio continues to expand—hovering for the next five years between 120 and 150—then the investor is stuck. A new trading precedent has apparently been set, and to trade back into gold during that period would mean a contraction in the investor's metal holdings.

In this case, the investor could continue to add to their silver holdings and wait for a contraction in the ratio, but nothing is certain. This is the essential risk for those trading the ratio. This example emphasizes the need to successfully monitor ratio changes over the short- and mid-term to catch the more likely extremes as they emerge.

Gold-Silver Ratio Trading Alternatives

There are a number of ways to execute a gold-silver ratio trading strategy, each of which has its own risks and rewards.

Futures Investing

This involves the simple purchase of either gold or silver contracts at each trading juncture. The advantages and disadvantages of this strategy are the same—leverage. That is, futures trading is a risky proposition for those who are uninitiated. An investor can play futures on margin, but that margin can also bankrupt the investor.

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

ETFs offer a simpler means of trading the gold-silver ratio. Again, the simple purchase of the appropriate ETF—gold or silver—at trading turns will suffice to execute the strategy. Some investors prefer not to commit to an all-or-nothing gold-silver trade, keeping open positions in both ETFs and adding to them proportionally. As the ratio rises, they buy silver. As it falls, they buy gold. This keeps the investor from having to speculate on whether extreme ratio levels have actually been reached.

Options Strategies

Options strategies abound for investors, but the most interesting involves a sort of arbitrage. This requires the purchase of puts on gold and calls on silver when the ratio is high and the opposite when the ratio is low. The bet is the spread will diminish with time in the high-ratio climate and increase in the low-ratio climate. A similar strategy can be applied to futures contracts. Options permit the investor to put up less cash and still enjoy the benefits of leverage.

The risk here is that the time component of the option may erode any real gains made on the trade. Therefore, it is best to use long-dated options or LEAPS to offset this risk.

Pool Accounts

Pools are large, private holdings of metals that are sold in a variety of denominations to investors. The same strategies employed in ETF investing can be applied here. The advantage of pool accounts is the actual metal can be attained whenever the investor desires. This is not the case with metal ETFs, where very large minimums must be held in order to take physical delivery.

Gold and Silver Bullion and Coins

It is not recommended that this trade be executed with physical gold for a number of reasons. These range from liquidity and convenience to security. Just don't do it.

The Bottom Line

There's an entire world of investing permutations available to the gold-silver ratio trader. What's most important is that the investor knows their own trading personality and risk profile. For the hard-asset investor concerned with the ongoing value of their nation's fiat currency, the gold-silver ratio trade offers the security of knowing, at the very least, that they always possess the metal.