HOW TO BUY GOLD

Advice on where beginners should start.

Why is gold valuable?

In ancient times, gold's malleability and luster led to its use in jewelry and early coins. It was also hard to dig gold out of the ground -- and the more difficult something is to obtain, the higher it is valued. 

Over time, humans began using the precious metal as a way to facilitate trade and accumulate and store wealth. In fact, early paper currencies were generally backed by gold, with every printed bill corresponding to an amount of gold held in a vault somewhere for which it could, technically, be exchanged (this rarely happened). This approach to paper money lasted well into the 20th century. Nowadays, modern currencies are largely fiat currencies, so the link between gold and paper money has long been broken. However, people still love the yellow metal.

Where does demand for gold come from?

The largest demand industry by far is jewelry, which accounts for around 50% of gold demand. Another 40% comes from direct physical investment in gold, including that used to create coins, bullion, medals, and gold bars. (Bullion is a gold bar or coin stamped with the amount of gold it contains and the gold's purity. It is different than numismatic coins, collectibles that trade based on demand for the specific type of coin rather than its gold content.) 

Investors in physical gold include individuals, central banks, and, more recently, exchange-traded funds that purchase gold on behalf of others. Gold is often viewed as a "Safe-Haven" investment. If paper money were to suddenly become worthless, the world would have to fall back on something of value to facilitate trade. This is one of the reasons that investors tend to push up the price of gold when financial markets are volatile.

Since gold is a good conductor of electricity, the remaining demand for gold comes from industry, for use in things such as dentistry, heat shields, and tech gadgets. 

How is the price of gold determined?

Gold is a commodity that trades based on supply and demand. The interplay between supply and demand ultimately determines what the spot price of gold is at any given time.

The demand for jewelry is fairly constant, though economic downturns do, obviously, lead to some temporary reductions in demand from this industry. The demand from investors, including central banks, however, tends to inversely track the economy and investor sentiment. When investors are worried about the economy, they often buy gold, and based on the increase in demand, push its price higher. You can keep track of gold's ups and downs at the  website of the World Gold Council, an industry trade group backed by some of the largest gold miners in the world. 

How much gold is there?

Gold is actually quite plentiful in nature but is difficult to extract. For example, seawater contains gold -- but in such small quantities it would cost more to extract than the gold would be worth. So there is a big difference between the availability of gold and how much gold there is in the world.  The World Gold Council estimates that there are about 190,000 metric tons of gold above ground being used today and roughly 54,000 metric tons of gold that can be economically extracted from the Earth using current technology. Advances in extraction methods or materially higher gold prices could shift that number. Gold has been discovered near undersea thermal vents in quantities that suggest it might be worth extracting if prices rose high enough. 

How do we get gold?

Although panning for gold was a common practice during the California Gold Rush, nowadays it is mined from the ground. While gold can be found by itself, it's far more commonly found along with other metals, including silver and copper. Thus, a miner may actually produce gold as a by-product of its other mining efforts.

Miners begin by finding a place where they believe gold is located in large enough quantities that it can be economically obtained. Then local governments and agencies have to grant the company permission to build and operate a mine. Developing a mine is a dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming process with little to no economic return until the mine is finally operational -- which often takes a decade or more from start to finish. 

How well does gold hold its value in a downturn?

The answer depends partly on how you invest in gold, but a quick look at gold prices relative to stock prices during the bear market of the 2007-2009 recession provides a telling example.

Between Nov. 30, 2007, and June 1, 2009, the S&P 500 index fell 36%. The price of gold, on the other hand, rose 25%. This is a recent example of a material and prolonged stock downturn, but it's also a particularly dramatic one because, at the time, there were very rea­l concerns about the viability of the global financial system.

When capital markets are in turmoil, gold often performs relatively well as investors seek out safe-haven investments.

Ways to invest in gold

Bullion, bars, and coins

These are the best option for owning physical gold. However, there are markups to consider. The money it takes to turn raw gold into a coin is often passed on to the end customer. Also, most coin dealers will add a markup to their prices to compensate them for acting as middlemen. Perhaps the best option for most investors looking to own physical gold is to buy bullion.

How much should you invest in gold?

Gold can be a volatile investment, so you shouldn't put a large amount of your assets into it -- it's best to keep it around 10% of your overall portfolio. The real benefit, for new and experienced investors alike, comes from the diversification that gold can offer. Once you've built your gold position, make sure to periodically balance your portfolio so that your relative exposure to it remains the same.

When should you buy gold?

It's best to buy small amounts over time. When gold prices are high, the price of gold-related stocks rises as well. That can mean lackluster returns in the near term, but it doesn't diminish the benefit over the long term of holding gold to diversify your portfolio. By buying a little at a time, you can dollar cost average into the position.

As with any investment, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for how you should invest in gold. But armed with the knowledge of how the gold industry works, what each type of investment entails, and what to consider when weighing your options, you can make the decision that's right for you.