The price of gold has rallied over the last 3 months, as stocks and the dollar have weakened, enabling the precious metal to recover from weakness in the first six months of 2018. That recent strength looks likely to continue, which should benefit select gold stocks between now and the end of 2018.

Gold prices weakened in the first half of 2018 after a tumultuous, but ultimately stronger 2017. The SPDR Gold Shares ETF (GLD), the SPDR ETF that tracks gold bullion, is down 8.81% in 2018 after returning 12.81% in 2017. The precious metal trades at around $1,228 per ounce as of October 15, 2018.

Despite headwinds related to the likelihood of additional interest rate hikes, gold may be poised to deliver solid returns again during the fourth quarter of 2018. The precious metal has traditionally been perceived as a safe haven investment in times of economic uncertainty and the recent concerns – along with the slide in stock prices – certainly fit the bill.

To get in on the movement in gold prices, there are plenty of options beyond investing in gold-indexed exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or purchasing a stash of the precious metal. Some of the hottest gold stocks for 2018 are mining and exploration companies. These top gold and gold mining stocks could be a good way to gain exposure to the market in the latter part of this year. All figures are accurate as of October 15, 2018. (See also: What Drives the Price of Gold?)

Barrick Gold Corporation (ABX)

Barrick is the gold mining leader, both in terms of size and low operating costs. Company guidance calls for all-in sustaining costs (AISC) of just $765 to $815 per ounce for 2018. The gold miner cranked out an impressive $1.5 billion in free cash flow (FCF) in 2016, which may have contributed to a 42% dividend hike to investors that year. FCF ticked downward in 2017, but Barrick is still generating enough to secure continued payouts, and the dividend yield is currently 1.05%.

Shares of Barrick surged late last week after it reported an increase in production and sales volume in the just-completed third quarter, suggesting that it will likely beat quarterly revenue forecasts when it reports results later this month. Year-to-date the stock is down more than 13% but has been on the rise since early September. Given its low costs and solid production pipeline, Barrick could be a good medium-term investment, especially if it can continue to slash debt from its balance sheet. The stock is currently trading at $12.77 versus an average 12-month price target of $14.14. 

Royal Gold, Inc. (RGLD)

Royal Gold isn't like the traditional mining companies that have to invest in a lot of costly equipment and operations to actually get the precious metal from the ground – it makes its money through royalty and streaming agreements with the heavy earth movers. In fact, one of Royal Gold's major sources of revenue is a streaming agreement for a Dominican mine with Barrick Gold. This low-cost business model is a gold mine (pardon the pun) for Royal Gold in terms of free cash flow – the company was able to convert about 60% of its revenue into cash flow in the first three quarters of fiscal 2017

The stock currently trades at $78.98 per share, well below its average 12-month price target of $95.65. However, results have been positive, even when the price of gold was waning and the company should benefit from the pickup in gold prices. For fiscal year 2018 results, reported in June, the company reported revenue, cash flow and gold equivalent ounce production that surpassed estimates and grew from the previous year.

Franco-Nevada Corporation (FNV)

This is another precious metals streaming and royalty company that is heavily focused on gold. However, the Canada-based company has a more diversified portfolio, with investments in 82 oil and gas projects, of which around 60 are currently in the production stage. Although the company has taken advantage of what it views as positive market conditions to jump into the oil and gas fields, Franco-Nevada plans to retain its focus on metals, with the long-term goal of generating 80% of revenue from precious metals including gold, silver and platinum group metals.

Franco-Nevada has consistently beaten EPS estimates over the past five quarters. The stock is currently trading at $67.19, so there is some room for growth into its average 12-month price target of $81.27, and the dividend yield of 1.45% could be attractive to some investors. Furthermore, there is a chance that the stock could exceed expectations as the company's diversification efforts begin to bear fruit.

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