Gold in Them There IRAs

by | Sep 17, 2012 | Weekly Column

Here in the Black Hills, home of the historic Homestake Mine, we know a gold rush when we see one. The last few years have tempted investors to take part in a modern gold rush. The precious metal is thought of as a safe harbor for investment capital during times of economic and political unrest and chaos.

There are many ways to own gold, including holding an interest in it via a financial medium like a mutual fund or an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF). Those who want gold as protection against political or economic turmoil, though, probably are thinking of owning physical gold.

Since Americans’ savings and investing rates are so low, most folks don’t have any extra funds to put into gold. Their only investment vehicle may be an IRA. Yet IRAs are specifically excluded from owning collectibles, metals, and coins.

There are exceptions, however: U.S. gold coins minted by the U.S. Treasury, or bullion bars or coins of a fineness of 995 parts per 1,000. Several non-U.S. minted gold coins meet that standard. The key here is that the coins or bars must be in the physical possession of a qualified trustee. That means gold you stash in a safe or bury in the back yard does not qualify.

Most banks, brokerage firms, or mutual fund companies are not interested in holding physical gold, so finding a qualified trustee can be difficult. You must do a reasonable amount of due diligence to be sure the trustee you find is really trustworthy.

A trustee needs to arrange for the shipping, handling, and storage of your gold. For this reason, you will certainly pay much higher fees than you would for normal stock, bond, and cash investments. The fees can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars annually.

Even if you are willing to pay the high fees, first ask yourself, “What’s the point?” The reason most folks want to own physical gold or silver is to have “real” money available in case of an economic crisis or political uprising. How does owning physical gold in an unknown location that may be thousands of miles from you fulfill that requirement? Wouldn’t owning an ETF like GLD actually accomplish the same thing, only without the high costs? Yes, it would.

If you want to own gold, my strong suggestion is to own the GLD ETF and avoid all the high fees. The total cost of purchasing GLD is probably about $10.

Other options are mutual funds that purchase gold mining stocks, which is probably a better way to participate in the gold market. This is because of the leverage factor. In a rising market, the cost of mining gold is much lower relative to the market value of the gold. So if a mining company pays $1,000 to mine an ounce of gold and can sell it for $1,500, the company—and you, as an owner of its stock—make $500 per ounce. Gold could stay at that same price for a year and your company would continue to make a 33% gross profit.

However, if you owned the physical gold and it stayed at the same price for a year, your profit would be 0%. You would only make that same $500 profit if the gold appreciated from $1,500 to $2,000 an ounce.

Of course, the reverse is also true. If gold turns downward, you will stand to lose much more owning the mining company than the physical gold. That’s why I recommend owning gold, like any other asset, only as part of a diversified portfolio of investments.

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