In the wake of the Brexit vote, investors seeking safe-haven asset classes have their work cut out. Equity markets have seen extreme volatility, low interest rates have destroyed returns for those wanting the safety of cash savings, and foreign exchange plays remain far from predictable.
Meanwhile, commodities remain among the worst performing asset classes. That's excepting one particular commodity – gold – with the shiny yellow metal soaring by nearly 30% from the start of 2016 to date in dollar terms, rising from $1,050 (£793, €942) an ounce to about $1,350 an ounce.
If you mapped the gold price in Brexit-heavy pound sterling terms, the appreciation is well above 40%. On 4 August, after the Bank of England decided to lower the country's benchmark interest rate to 0.25%, from 0.50% where it had been since March 2009, there was nothing short of a "gold rush" in the UK.
The Royal Mint registered a 25% increase in transactions on its gold bullion website that week. Concurrently, several sellers across London, Manchester and Edinburgh reported a near 50% increase in gold sales. Should you choose to invest in gold and partake in the gold rush, the following pathways are available complete with caveats and pitfalls:
Physical gold as a tax-efficient alternative
You could purchase physical gold in any form of coins or bars. The Royal Mint is the most visible port of call, but by no means the only one. For instance, sellers like ATS London, Bullion by Post, Jewellery Quarter Bullion Ltd and Pure Gold Company and several others act as authorised distributors not just for the Royal Mint, but others including Umicore, Heraeus, Metalor and Produits Artistiques Métaux Précieux.
Buying physical gold has tax benefits. For starters, there is no VAT levy on gold bars or coins. In case of the latter, coins are also exempt from Capital Gains Tax.
If you are storing gold at home, ensure that it is covered under your home and/or contents insurance.
If uneasy about storing gold at home, a number of sellers, including the Royal Mint, can store your purchase in fully-insured vaults for around 0.10% to 0.15% of the holding's headline valuation.
Gold Exchange Traded Funds
While buying physical gold is the starting point for many, it is not the only route. Many seek the safety of the yellow metal via commodity Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) focused on gold. They are similar to market tracker funds, but track a particular commodity rather than a stock market index.
Gold-backed ETFs surfaced around 2002 in Australia, originally aimed at institutional investors. However, these days they are widely available to individual investors. What's more, their fee ranges between 0.25% and 0.75% which is typically lower than a conventional fund. Your investment in the ETF would mirror the gold price for better or worse.
While there are several gold ETFs around; the top three market leading UK players include – ETFS Metal Securities Physical Gold, iShares Physical Metals Gold ETC, and Gold Bullion Securities Secured Undated Zero Coupon Notes (as per data extracted on 30 August, 2016).
Of course, remember that while all the gold that backs up the ETF is inventoried, what you are signing up for would be paper gold, not physical gold. Furthermore, a gold-backed ETF is a financial product carrying a counterparty risk, ie. reliance on another party or investment manager to deliver returns.
Gold Funds: Diverse but pricier
If neither physical gold nor its paper version with counterparty risk appeal to you, a third option could be investing in a gold fund. Managers of these funds typically invest in both buying physical gold as well as shares in gold mining firms with the mix varying for each fund.
MFM Junior Gold, Ruffer Gold, Blackrock Gold & General, Investec Global Gold, and Smith & Williamson Global Gold & Resources are among the top UK market performers (as per data extracted on 30 August, 2016). Fees and charges for gold funds, typically in the range of 1.00% to 1.50%, are much higher than ETFs.
Returns could well exceed those from an ordinary uptick in the price of gold via an ETF as you could reap rewards from how gold mining companies perform as well. However, the opposite could be true too, with risk extending well beyond the vagaries of the physical gold market and diminishing the original capital investment.
Understand the lure but don't ignore the risks
There are two reasons why most of us flock to gold and both have withstood the test of time. First off, gold is the ultimate fool's commodity purchased on the hope of being able sell it at a higher price to someone else at a later date. Secondly, the yellow metal has been the last line of defence during economic or financial crises since modern society got taken in by its glitter.
Yet, it is no holy grail of the investing world and never will be. Like any other asset class, or commodity, it can get clobbered by market permutations. The most obvious of these in the case of the gold is the strength of the dollar. With US Federal Reserve currently the only central bank with a remote likelihood of raising interest rates, a spike in the greenback's value makes the dollar-traded yellow metal particularly vulnerable.
FXTM research analyst Lukman Otunuga says the persistent concerns over the global economy could offer the encouragement needed for gold to trade higher in the near future. "Of course factors such as central bank caution, depressed stock markets, and post-Brexit uncertainties have boosted gold's allure. Yet it remains highly vulnerable to US rate-hike expectations and could continue to meander between gains and losses for much of 2016."
As things stand, from a technical standpoint, a breakdown below $1,315 an ounce could open a path towards $1,285, while the bulls need to conquer $1,345 to remain in the game. Not only does a stronger dollar spell bad news for gold, when investors see market panic subside, gold falls out of favour.
In August 2011, the gold price peaked at a record high of $1,900 an ounce, following which an equities market recovery started a price slide that sent it below $1,000 at one point. Even with all of investors' post-Brexit anxieties, that peak price is yet to be regained as gold continues to trade 30% below it.
The domino effect of price fluctuation on gold funds is even wilder. With gold completely in the doldrums by 2013-14, many gold funds lost between 60-80% of their value. Yet, the very same funds are currently delivering valuation upticks in a similar range on the back of the recent price rise offering an apt summation of the kind of volatility you should be prepared for.
Finally, always remember that while gold is a good safe haven asset in a trying investment climate, it does not generate any income whatsoever, only profit or loss once sold.