A look at the GLD, the world's most popular gold-backed exchange traded fund...
SOME PEOPLE have asked me why the primary Gold ETF, SPDR Gold Trust (NYSE:GLD), doesn't more closely track the price of gold, writes Doug Hornig, senior editor at Casey Research.
For those not familiar with the workings of this innovative way to "own gold," it's worth going over a few of the details, because there are some common misunderstandings regarding the ETF.
The creators of GLD were as savvy as it gets. They saw a market crying for something like this and turned that need into one of the most successful new financial products ever introduced. The ETF burst upon the scene in November of 2004 and was immediately latched onto as a means of riding the gold bull market without the inconvenience of having to transport and securely store actual bullion.
In the past seven years, its rise has been meteoric. It has steadily ascended the list of the world's leading gold repositories, until today it has the sixth-largest global stash of the metal, at more than 1,230 tons, or 39.57 million ounces, worth over $70.7 billion.
First misconception: Contrary to popular opinion, the SPDR Gold Trust does not buy and sell gold. It creates and redeems paper shares in the company. These are passed through a group of market makers, who trade them on the NYSE, then deposit into or withdraw from the HSBC vault in London the corresponding amount of physical bullion, in the form of 400 oz. London Good Delivery bars.
And even that description is somewhat misleading. GLD deals only in "baskets" of 100,000 shares, with the goal being for the share price to track gold's market value as closely as possible. Since each share represents slightly less than a tenth of an ounce of gold, that means each basket must trade close to 10,000 ounces of gold. That'd be impractical if the buying and selling had to be done on the open market.
So how do they pull it off? Well, after extensive conversations with officials, I was able to determine that what actually happens is that the gold is moved either into or out of the GLD-allocated section of HSBC's vault, to or from another section of that same vault. When I found that out, I envisioned a guy on a yellow forklift, driving pallets laden with thousands of ounces of gold back and forth across the vault floor. Such a job.
Beyond the basics, we don't know much. You will not be allowed to see the vault, whether or not you are a GLD shareholder and no matter how many shares you own. In fact, a high trust official in New York told me that even he isn't allowed inside there.
For the most part, GLD does a pretty good job of following the spot price of gold. A share will never be priced exactly at the value of a tenth of an ounce of metal, simply because the trust deducts transaction fees and other expenses. But it's close. During August of 2011, for example, the net asset value (NAV) of a share of GLD varied from 97.3635 to 97.3867% of the Gold Price, as fixed each day at 10:30 a.m. New York time.
However, if you are an investor in GLD, or are considering becoming one, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, it can't be stressed enough that this is a paper asset. It is not a way to Buy Gold and have someone else store your holdings for you. That can be done in other ways. There are depositories that specialize in this service, both domestically and in foreign jurisdictions like Switzerland. But that isn't what GLD is about.
Now, theoretically, it is true that you can convert your GLD shares to physical gold and take delivery of it. But practically, you can't. For one thing, you have to be approved to do so (generally meaning, you're either a broker or a market maker), and then you have to redeem a minimum of 100,000 shares. And even if you meet those qualifications, buried in the firm's prospectus – a very tough read, by the way – is a provision stating that they have the option of redeeming such shares in cash equivalent rather than bullion.
This is to say: If there is a sudden run on physical gold, GLD is not contractually obligated to provide actual metal, in exchange for however many shares, to anyone.
Thus our position has always been: Hold as much gold in coins and bullion as you comfortably can. Use the ETFs to generate profits if you like, but make sure you realize that all of those profits will be of the paper variety.
None of this is to disparage GLD. For ordinary investors, the ETF represents a way to (indirectly) participate in gold "ownership" without the hassle of actually taking physical delivery and finding a suitable place to vault your metal. Plus, there are no storage fees, bid/ask spreads, threats of theft, or dealer markups to worry about. And finally, for those who like to really play the market, shares are amenable to all the tricks of the securities trade. They can be optioned, shorted, hedged, bundled, margined, whatever. Little wonder GLD is so wildly popular.
So use GLD if you are of a mind to. Just be certain you understand what it is you are dealing with.
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