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This post on gold investing is from Chelsea, the founder of Mama Fish Saves. It provides an in-depth look at the realities of investing in gold.
Gold investing was always a topic of heated debate in my house. My grandfather was a total gold bug. He was convinced that the dollar was essentially worthless since Nixon brought an end to the gold standard in 1971. No matter how often we sparred with him on the total doomsday scenario he created in his mind where we would wake up to a completely devalued US dollar, he was convinced. Gold was the only way to protect your wealth.
My grandfather passed when I was 16, but there is a vocal minority of people who still agree with him. And with markets at all-time highs, political uncertainty abounding, and low-interest rates the debate is arising yet again. So today, I wanted to share why gold should be, at most, a very small percentage of your portfolio. And why it’s 0% of mine.
Why some people invest in gold
Overall, I think gold investing is silly and I don’t do it myself. But for fairness, let’s start with the valid reasons some people might invest in gold. Because, arguably, there actually are some. Today, gold is primarily an investment vehicle. Gold is discussed alongside interest rates and currency values, not end user demand like other commodities. But people have valued it for generations and it still could have a small spot in your investment portfolio.
Gold can be good for diversification.
When we face a recession, the US dollar weakens, or any kind of broader crisis occurs, stocks usually decline while gold rises. The point of diversification is to have different assets that don’t move in lockstep. The way gold moves opposite the market is a positive for smoothing returns.
Gold is good when you’re worried about inflation.
The core reason many investors purchase gold is because it holds its value. Gold investors like my grandfather don’t like that the Federal Reserve can “just print money whenever they want” and value gold for its scarcity. And over the past 50 years, they have largely been right. Since 1802, the value of gold has increased about 0.6% a year, on average, while the value of a dollar has declined 1.4%, according to AAII.
Over the very long term, gold has shown much weaker returns than the stock market, which we will discuss below. That has not been the case over the last 17 years, with gold up 348% since 2000. However, that is more indicative of an investment bubble than a strong track record. If you really want to invest in gold or are particularly worried about geopolitical issues, I would recommend viewing it as an alternative investment in your asset allocation. Cap your gold investments to 5% (maybe 10%) of your total investment portfolio and buy ETFs instead of gold bars and coins.
Why gold investing is silly
Winston Churchill once said, “If you put two economists in a room, you get two opinions, unless one of them is Lord Keynes, in which case you get three opinions.” This is true on almost every economic issue with the exception of the gold standard.
In 2012 at the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago, a panel of economic experts were asked if they agreed that a return to the gold standard would improve life for the average American. Results were unanimous with 100% of economists disagreeing with the proposition. Chicago’s Richard Thaler went so far as to say, “Why tie to gold? Why not 1982 Bordeaux?”
It has been over a decade since I debated with my grandfather about the merits of the gold standard and investing in gold. But if anything, I think his arguments are more ridiculous today than I did then. Here’s why.
You’re giving up returns to “invest” in gold
Choosing to put your money in gold is one step above not investing at all. Stocks pay dividends, public companies grow over the long term and increase their stock value, bonds pay interest. Gold does, well, none of those things. While gold might not suffer the inflation risk of simply leaving your cash in a savings account, there is still an opportunity cost of holding it. Over the long-term you are giving up significant returns for perceived security. Below I included a publicly available chart from AAII, a nonprofit investment educator, to show the difference in historical returns adjusted for inflation. Since 1802, stocks have returned an average of 6.7% a year while gold has returned 0.6%.
Gold pricing is propped up by investors
To me, the craziest part of gold investing is retail (personal) investors who say it is beneficial because it has intrinsic value that can be passed down through generations, unlike that ridiculous paper dollar. But gold doesn’t have intrinsic value. We don’t need it for almost anything outside of jewelry. We don’t consume it; the world wouldn’t stop without it.
Since 2000, gold prices have risen 348%. In that same time period, real demand for gold for jewelry and some other small industrial, dental and technology uses has fallen over 35% according to the World Gold Council. Demand fell and prices rose. Oops, we broke economics.
What happened was that investors stepped in. Gold ETFs (exchange traded funds) were created in the early 2000s which allowed individuals to purchase gold without having to actually bury gold bars in their backyard. Investment demand grew from 160 tons in 2000 to 1,574 tons in 2016. An increase of almost 10x! This meant that investment demand went from being 4% of total demand to 36%.
What do we think would happen to gold prices if investors suddenly decided they didn’t want to be invested in gold anymore? Or if the decline in popularity of gold jewelry continues and people start taking advantage of the high gold prices to sell old jewelry for cash? The price will plummet closer to real demand and kill any potential returns.
Gold has value because we say it has value. The same complaint gold bugs make about the US dollar and other floating currencies. The difference is, it is far easier to imagine the music stopping for gold than for the dollar.
The supply of gold is constantly increasing
When you use 15 gallons of gasoline in your car, it is gone. The world no longer has those 15 gallons and it will take the planet thousands and thousands of years to produce 15 new gallons. With gold, almost all of the gold mined in the history of the world still exists today. Whether in jewelry, gold bars, or dental fillings, the gold got processed but not consumed. Every year we mine more gold and the absolute supply grows.
We have way more gold than we actually need, which is almost ironic. The exact commodity prized for its scarcity is really quite abundant.
The doomsday preppers don’t need gold
I saved the silliest for last because it is a debate I actually had with my grandfather more than once. He would explain to me this dystopian scenario where the economy or U.S. government would collapse, the U.S. dollar would be worth nothing, and we would need gold. It is actually a relatively common argument among conspiracy theorists. They have a deep seeded distrust of the government and authorities so they hide in gold.
But in a collapse of the world as we know it, what would you possibly do with gold? If your neighbor had fresh water, and you had none, he isn’t going to give you any for all the gold bars in your basement. It would be useless to him! If some kind of global crisis is what you are preparing for, you probably aren’t reading this blog. You wouldn’t trust me. I’ve been told I don’t understand. However, if you are here, I’ve got some tips. I’m not going to try to convince you the world will be fine. I don’t know that and you wouldn’t believe me. But if you really want to prep, maybe focus on food, water, and fuel. And invest in the market, just in case everything turns out alright.
Gold investing is an inflation hedge, not a path to real returns
Overall, choosing to invest in gold is accepting that over the long-term you’re giving up returns. Gold is a hedge against inflation, and performs better than cash, but you shouldn’t have a lot of cash sitting around anyway. If you can invest through the cycle, with discipline, and for the long-term, you are almost always better off buying stocks and bonds over gold bars. But good luck convincing Grandpa.
Chelsea is a mother, wife, investment professional, and personal finance nerd.
She founded Mama Fish Saves, a personal finance blog for families to provide simple answers to all the money questions we didn’t get answered in school.
She hopes to help parents feel empowered about their finances so they can achieve their dreams and raise financially smart kids!
Subscribe to her blog and follow along here.