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Gold as an asset class

There’s not much else in investing that’s like gold. Companies listed on the stock market come and go. Currencies come and go. Heck, countries come and go!

But you’ll find gold in the Bible, and even before that.

I suppose it’s possible that in the year 4018 we’ll still be comparing this Vanguard tracker fund to that iShares version. But don’t hold your breath.

Of course, presuming scientific progress continues apace we’ll probably be able to make all the gold we want by then in our own 3D printing machines, as easily as making toast today.

This may put a distant Best Before date on two of the great virtues of gold – its relative scarcity and its peerless immutability – for anyone looking to invest over the next few centuries.1 [1]

On the other hand, alchemists have been trying to turn mundane matter into gold for millennia, and they didn’t get very far.

Had they succeeded they presumably would have crashed the gold price anyway – in the same way rampaging conquistadors in the Age of Discovery caused spiraling inflation in Spain when they sent back ships full of silver.

I told you these metals had history.

Gold: The barbarous relic

If this topic already strikes you as absurd in a discussion about modern investing, you’re not alone. Many investors hate the very idea of gold.

People have been digging up, fighting over, and reburying gold at vast expense for thousands of years. In that time it has done little for us save fill a few teeth, adorn the toilet seats of oligarchs and a certain US president, and play a modest role in electronics.

Yet gold continues to be coveted. And that alone is what gives it its great value.

Owning gold earns you no income. Shares pay dividends – or at least the promise of future dividends – and property and bonds pay an income, too. Even cash in the bank earns you some interest.

But gold pays zilch. If you buy one ounce of gold today and keep hold of it, in 100 years you’ll still have one ounce of gold. Gold doesn’t grow like a fruit tree or send you cheques in the mail. It just sits there. Looking shiny.

Worse, gold costs you money to keep it.

Because gold is expensive and easily transported – another of its benefits, actually, especially in a Mad Max societal breakdown scenario – it’s easily stolen.

This means gold must be kept under lock and key. And that costs money.

We can break down the cost of owning gold into two components:

All assets come with these costs to varying degrees. With gold they loom larger.

Gold fingered

Another thing to remember is almost all the gold ever extracted is still out there somewhere.

Gold isn’t a commodity like oil or wheat that’s consumed. Its resistance to decay means gold stocks are always increasing, albeit slowly and with some lost in rotting hulks beneath the waves or forgotten under mattresses.

Gold price advances and declines can run for decades, with little apparent rhyme or reason.

The following chart shows the gold price in dollars2 [2] over the past 100 years (in log format, which is the best way to view long-term charts [3]):


Gold price since 1915. (Click to enlarge).

Source: Macro Trends [5].

That looks great, but remember two things. Firstly 100 years is very long time. Secondly, inflation [6] eroded the value of a dollar over that time.

Here’s the same chart showing real returns (that is, adjusted for inflation by deflating using the US consumer price index):


Gold price, inflation-adjusted. (Click to enlarge.)

Source: Macro Trends.

We can see that gold has broadly kept – and even slightly grown – its value over the past 100 years after adjusting for inflation. But the ride has been very rocky, and there have been many periods where you lost money in real terms in gold.

How enthusiastically the typical investor will talk about owning gold probably depends on where they bought (and perhaps sold) on this timeline.

You might retort that the FTSE 100 index of shares didn’t make much progress following its year 2000 peak, say. The index was still underwater 15 years later.

True, but remember you would also have received regular dividends from your stake in the FTSE 100. Had you reinvested that income back into the index over time, you were up nearly 70% [8] on your 1999 position by 2015.

In contrast, whether or not gold is in the doldrums you get paid nothing. In fact you pay to keep your dwindling pot of gold safe and secure.

Reasons to own gold

You may ask why anyone would own gold, given all these drawbacks? There’s a lot of stuff we used to do religiously that we don’t do anymore. Should hoarding gold go the way of other out-of-date wisdom, such that business about coveting your neighbors’ ass?

Views differ, to put it mildly. Respected passive investment writers such as Tim Hale [9] and Lars Kroijer [10] tell you to skip gold. Warren Buffett, the greatest active investor of all-time, also thinks gold is pointless [11].

But not everyone who invests in gold is a moony-eyed maniac longing for the return of the Aztec empire. These sober gold owners have three good reasons to hold gold:

Store of long-term value – Gold is often touted as retaining its worth against the ravages of inflation. Gold doesn’t pay an income, but over the long-term the price has risen and that’s preserved purchasing power. You will hear folksy anecdotes about an ounce of gold always being able to buy [12] a decent tailored suit, for example. More rigorously, respected researchers such as those behind the Credit Suisse Global Yearbook3 [13] have found that gold has on average been resistant to inflation in developed markets over the long-term. But beyond keeping its value, real4 [14] returns have been small to non-existent, depending on your country, and there have been long periods where gold was underwater. Gold does not move in lockstep with inflation – not even when measured over years. Some people argue the price is so erratic it’s useless as a protector against inflation, since it cannot be relied upon.

Asset of last resort – Such gold skeptics would not include anyone unlucky enough to live in a period of hyperinflation for their economy. To a middle-class German in the 1930s – spending their wages in bundles of paper notes from a wheelbarrow before they become worthless – quibbling over a few percent of return might sound ludicrous. Similarly, German Jews couldn’t take much with them when they fled the Nazis, but gold could be hidden in a coat or shoe. Inflation-protected government bonds probably won’t cut the mustard at the end of the world, but the precious metal might still buy you safer passage. (Cynics say you need guns and baked beans (and a can opener) in that dire scenario.)

Gold is not very correlated with shares and bonds – I mentioned the gold price is erratic. It’s also, historically, shown little inclination to pay any attention to what other asset classes are doing. This almost makes gold the Holy Grail of investing – a non-correlated asset that can improve diversification and potentially cushion your portfolio – except for its very low expected returns. Your gold may or may not crash when your shares or bonds do, but it could equally well fall when the rest of your portfolio rises – and all without any great confidence of a good long-term real return. Still, you could get a rebalancing benefit from tinkering with your positions over time.


Notice how the correlation is lowest with important assets like stocks and bonds.

Source: GBI Gold / Bloomberg / Erste Group.

For most people who want to own some gold, these factors point towards it being an emergency or insurance asset, rather than a big holding. Having 3-5% in gold won’t do your long-term returns massive harm if you’re unlucky enough to own it through a long gold bear market – and it may come into its own in a crisis.

But as I say, views differ, and some investors own a lot of gold. One interesting low-volatility model allocation – the Permanent Portfolio [16] – mandates a massive 25% holding in gold.

Also, true gold bugs (don’t call them that to their face) would argue even 100 years of return data is deceptive. They’d note all paper money (like our pounds and dollars) has eventually failed in the past – yet people still value gold today.

There’s no definitive answer. As I said, gold is strange like that.

Perhaps the best metric is how do you feel about it? If you’re drawn to gold and you’re happy to pay for it, then no doubt other people are, too. Buy a little.

If you’re repulsed by gold, don’t feel guilty about skipping it. You’ll do fine. Probably.

How to hold gold

Should you decide to you want to own some gold, you’ll need to decide how and where. Because another weird thing about gold is there’s a lot of choice.

Gold ETCs are the easiest way to get exposure to the gold price. ETCs (Exchange Traded Commodities [17]) are just another kind of ETF. They are cheap to buy and the ongoing costs can be as low as 0.2% or so. That’s good value compared to what your grandparents would have paid to store gold in a bank vault, but it’s still a non-trivial drain if the gold price goes down or sideways for 20 years. Both synthetic [18] and physical forms are available. Physical gold ETCs are backed by bullion. A synthetic ETC does not own any gold, just derivatives linked to the gold. (It may be cheaper, but if you want to ask a gold bug whether a synthetic ETC is the best way to get exposure to the benefits of gold – duck!)

Services like Bullion Vault [19]5 [20] and the Royal Mint bring you a step closer to physically owning gold. They have hoards of it in big safes. When you buy gold with them, a ledger records that you own a certain amount of that physical gold. Invest more and the ledger moves accordingly. Because the gold never leaves the bunker, it doesn’t have to be re-tested for purity, which saves money compared to taking physical ownership. But the services do stress this so so-called ‘allocated gold’ is still legally your personal property. Bullion Vault’s gold for example is held in vaults in various locations around the world, separate from the balance sheet of that company. If it goes bust, the gold should still be yours rather than, say, fair game for an administrator. Hold gold offshore and you may even have a back-up asset against shenanigans at home with your currency or your government if things turn nasty. Whether you’ll be able to access gold you stored in Zurich in the Zombie Apocalypse is debatable. (See an older article [21] I wrote about Bullion Vault).

Physical gold bars, coins, and jewelry are the old-fashioned way to hold gold. In theory, pretty simple – buy something gold and keep it. In practice there are complications. You will have to bear the cost of holding, securing, and insuring your gold yourself. While it might be an acceptable risk to have a couple of gold coins hidden in your shed, beyond that it’s a security risk. Then there’s actually buying gold. You can’t just take somebody’s word the coin they’re selling is made of gold (for all I could tell it could be made of chocolate). This means every time gold changes hands it must be tested for purity (assayed), which costs money. Some forms of gold may also have value beyond the metal (notably jewelry) but do you have the expertise to assess that? On a more positive note, holding your own gold is the only way to go if you want it for when society breaks down. You’ll presumably need it to be accessible in a world without the Internet and scheduled flights. There can be tax advantages, too, if the coins you buy are UK currency – British gold sovereigns, for instance – so do your research.

Buying shares in gold miners gives you exposure to the gold price. However it also brings in a lot of other kinds of risk [22], such as management and market risk and exposure to other commodity prices (mining for gold uses vast amounts of energy). Gold miners are cyclical [23], and most people will do poorly trying to trade them. You could consider buying a specialist fund that invests in gold miners, but this is active investing and so you almost certainly shouldn’t.

Taxes are a whole other area to consider. Gold and taxes is an article [24] in itself. In short gold ETCs can be held in ISAs and SIPPs and ideally you’ll want to do so, to avoid capital gains taxes on any gains when you sell. Gold platforms may enable you to wrap your gold in a SIPP, but as far as I know not in ISAs. As I say, some gold coins are capital gains tax free, but coins cost you more to buy and sell, so don’t think you’re going to day trade gold sovereigns.

Probably the best thing to do if you want some exposure to gold is to buy it, hold it, and do your best to nearly forget about. You might only need it in an emergency. Sort of like when you buy travel insurance.

If it never pays you to have bought gold, then you probably lived through happy times. Who cares then if your gold did nothing?

  1. Improving man-made competition is already a good reason to avoid plain diamonds as a store of value, in my view. [ [27]]
  2. Like most commodities, gold is invariably priced in dollars. [ [28]]
  3. See the 2012 edition. [ [29]]
  4. i.e. Inflation-adjusted. [ [30]]
  5. Affiliate link. [ [31]]