Monday, October 1, 2012

Ways to own gold

This is not a post advocating that the reader buy gold.  This is simply a summary of my research on the different ways to own gold.  There was a period of time around the financial crisis in 2007-2008 when there were a number of people talking about why it's a good reason to own gold.  That got me into doing some research.  So here's what I came up with when I researched this subject back then.

There are several ways to own gold.
  • Gold bullion
  • Gold-backed exchange traded funds
  • Leveraged exchange traded funds
  • Online gold accounts
  • Gold-linked CDs
Each of these has its pros and cons.  Let's take a look.

Gold bullion

In this case one would buy actual physical gold (coins, bars, etc.) from a reputable dealer and find a place to store it.  Most proponents of gold bullion fall into two categories.
  • People who believe in an "economic armageddon" scenario.  They prefer to store it outside the banking system.  Of course, at that point, the safety of anything, anywhere is going to be questionable, so one would have to come up with creative and diverse ways of storing one's holdings.
  • People who don't trust the "paper gold" varieties.  They prefer to be able to see and touch their physical gold.  For such people storing gold in a bank locker is probably acceptable.
The issues around theft of gold bullion from one's home is complicated; I haven't really looked into things like whether or not insurance would cover it.

So, in summary, one should be aware of several expenses -- there is a commission when buying (usually resulting in a premium over the spot price of gold), there may be storage-related costs (e.g. locker rent at a bank), there may be insurance costs, and finally, there would be a commission involved when selling it (usually resulting a getting a price slightly lower than the spot value).

Unfortunately, even with gold bullion there can be fraud.

Gold-backed exchanged traded funds

In this case, one would hold shares of an exchange traded fund.  There are several such funds.  The most popular and largest of these is GLD, but there's also SGOL, PHYS, and IAU.  These funds are reportedly backed by physical gold bars at vaults in places like London, New York, or Zurich.

The pros of using this approach are clear.  It's easy to get in and out of the fund.  There's no premium when buying or selling (other than the fee by the brokerage for the stock trade).  However, there is a management fee for owning these funds (as there is for all types of funds) so there is an ongoing expense, although it's typically taken out by adjusting the net asset value of the fund.

The cons here are that even though the funds claim that their shares are backed by gold, there are some cynics that say there could be fraud involved and, in a doomsday scenario, the fund would simply report that bars of gold just aren't there, or that some number of them are missing.  The funds do state that the bullion is insured and audited -- would be one of the things to check in the prospectus.

Leveraged exchanged traded funds

These include funds such as UGL which use leverage to move at twice the percentage change in the price of gold.  As a personal opinion, I think this is getting into gambling territory, so I wouldn't touch something like this for investment purposes.

Online gold accounts

These include sites such as GoldMoney, BullionVault, and the Perth Mint Depository.  These often offer allocated and unallocated accounts, and in some scenarios will allow the account holder to take delivery in physical form, for a fee, if they should so choose.

The cons with these are similar to that of ETFs.  One has to place trust that they are being run in an ethical and well-managed fashion.

Of these, the Perth Mint Depository is interesting because it is the only one that is backed by a government -- the Government of Western Australia -- which would be the equivalent of something being backed by a state government in the US (as opposed to the federal government).

Gold-linked CDs

Some banks have either offered in the past, or currently offer, what is referred to as gold-linked CDs.  In other words, the returns of the CD are tied to the price of gold.  Often, the principal will be FDIC insured, and there is some, usually complex, formula that determines how the returns of the CD will be calculated based on the movement in the price of gold.

Here's a word of warning from the FDIC on market-linked CDs in general, so make sure that the terms of the CD are well understood before investing in them.

Is owning gold a good idea?

Even as of this writing, some of the blogs that I read such as ZeroHedge, Mish's Global Economic Analysis, and iTulip, talk about gold being an essential part of one's portfolio.  However, there are others such as Warren Buffett who don't think very much of the idea of owning gold.  More recently, there was this article by PIMCO which discusses a viewpoint on gold.

Just as with every investment, it seems like you'll find people on either extreme ("it's the only investment worth owning", or "stay away"), to those that have more moderate views ("it makes sense to have a percentage of one's portfolio in gold").

Personally, I'm much more comfortable with the approach detailed in my post on worry-free investing, sticking with instruments such as TIPS and I-Bonds.  They might not be ideal, but at least I wouldn't have to worry about all the fraud-related risks related to buying and storing of gold.  Of course, as with everything else I write about, this is subject to change.

A word about taxes

It is probably worth noting that any gains for gold holdings are taxed as a collectible rather than as long/short-term capital gains from a regular security.

Disclaimer:  I am not a financial advisor and it is possible that what I have written may contain errors so please do your own research and form your own opinions and/or action plan about this subject.  This post is just my way of documenting and sharing what I have learned.

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