All That Glitters Is Not Gold

In times of economic crisis, investors and regular citizens scared-out-of-their-minds turn to gold. As a gift, I like to say it’s always the right size and the right color. But as an investment, it’s an asset that is supposed to hold a steady value. While demand for gold can push the precious metal’s price higher, it’s value can also rise on a relative basis. Specifically, as the dollar continues to fall in value, it takes more of them to buy the same ounce of gold. So, if you think the stimulus plan might devalue the U.S. dollar and you don’t know where to invest, it may be a good time for gold.

With gold up year-to-date 4.97% as of Feb. 6, compared with 4.32% for all of 2008, ETFGuide compares the 2008 returns of four exchange-traded vehicles (ETVs).

SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) up 2.99%
Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX) down 26.65%
PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking Fund (DBC) down 30.77%
ProShares Ultra Gold (UGL) n/a, launched in Dec. 2008

I look at three more.

iShares Comex Gold Trust (IAU)
PowerShare DB Gold Fund
PowerShares DB Precious Metals Fund

The Gold Trust, up 4.92% this year through Feb 6., did the best because it holds real, solid gold bricks in a vault in London. If you want to own gold and not have to store it, this is the way to go. This or iShares Comex Gold Trust (IAU), which is up 5.11% as of Friday. These are not true funds, but grantor trusts. Shareholders are taxed as if they own the underlying gold, with a long-term gain tax rate of 28%.

The Market Vectors Gold Miners is an ETF that holds stocks. So, even though the commodity gold went up, the stocks fell because they were caught up in the macro downtrend of the broader stock market. The S&P 500 lost about 38% last year, so the rising price of gold helped the ETF’s returns, still beating the S&P 500 by 11 percentage points doesn’t feel so good when you lost 27% of your investment. Gold stocks will give leverage over the commodity, up to three times the percentage gain in the price of gold, but that leverage also works on the way down. Year-to-date Gold Miners is down 26% according to Yahoo Finance. Because Market Vectors holds stocks the current long-term capital gain tax rate of 15% applies.

PowerShares DBC holds futures contracts, but only about 10% is comprised of gold contracts, so it’s not a pure play. But it is a good way to play the broader commodity sector by tracking an index. Obviously, 2008 wasn’t a great year for commodities either. DBC is taxed like futures contracts. Capital gains are taxed 60% at the long-term rate and 40% at the short term rate.

ETFGuide doesn’t look at PowerShare DB Gold Fund (DGL), which holds only gold futures contracts. The DGL rose 3.2% last year and is up 2.61% year-to-date. There’s also the PowerShares DB Precious Metals Fund (DBP), which is comprised of 80% gold and 20% silver. It slid 1.12% last year and is down 3% year-to-date.

The price of one ounce of gold closed at $895 on the London Bullion Market, down from $920 last Thursday.

For a detailed explanation of the gold and all the other ETV tracking commodities check out ETFs for the Long Run: Chapter 8: The ETFs That Aren’t ETFs.

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