Is It Worthwhile to Invest in Precious Metals?

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Silver requested a post on the topic of “Investing in precious metals – worth it?”

This is a question that doesn’t really have a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer. It has to do with a lot of other factors, risk tolerance being a big piece of it. Let’s walk through the whole picture.

How One Invests in Precious Metals

Usually, when people discuss investing in precious metals, they’re talking about buying and selling gold, silver, and/or platinum.

This investment takes two forms. Sometimes, people will buy the physical metal and store it somewhere privately. For example, people will often purchase gold and/or silver coins and keep them in their safe or in their safe deposit box at their bank. One person I know has several pounds in old gold coins sitting in their safe.

Another option is to buy a precious metal ETF. Essentially, this means you’re buying a stock whose price is tied to the current value of that precious metal, usually meaning that the ETF represents ownership of some small amount of that metal. If the value of the metal goes up, the value of the ETF goes up.

There are also ETFs that represent precious metal interests, such as ownership of silver or gold mines or refiners. These often track roughly with the rise and fall in value of precious metals, but not perfectly (they tend to be a bit less volatile, in my experience).

The Upside
There are several big pluses to investing in precious metals that many people point to.

One, it’s a physical commodity. If you own gold, you actually own a piece of that precious metal. This is opposed to things like a share of stock, which only exists on paper (as the company it’s a share of only exists on paper, in the end).

Two, it’s a limited commodity. There’s not an overabundance of any precious metal in the world. Yes, there is more mined all the time, but the total quantity isn’t growing at a very rapid rate.

Three, the price of precious metals often runs in the opposite direction of the United States and other Western economies. The recent enormous increase in the value of gold has come during a period of great weakness in the United States economy. The last big run-up in gold prices came during another period of great weakness in the economy. Many people once argued that the value run-up was a response to high inflation, but this most recent run-up has come during a period of very low inflation. The repeating pattern mostly seems to be a weak United States economy.

This means that people often move into gold when the United States economy looks weak (driving up the price) and they move out of gold when the United States economy looks economically strong (causing the price to drop). This is an extremely rough approximation.

Obviously, right now, people point to the tremendous recent jump in value in gold and silver as an example of how strong an investment in precious metals is. This is both a good and a bad.

It demonstrates that, yes, there are huge value jumps in precious metals that you can get rich off of. If you had bought gold at $300, you’d be rich now.

The Downside
In the short term, however, the big run-up in value in precious metals has already happened. If you’re looking to get rich quickly in precious metals, that ship has sailed. There may still be value increases, but the rocket ship ride that occurred in precious metals happened already over the past few years, and if you didn’t own precious metals during that period, you missed the rocket ship.

The huge upwards jump and the many recent rollercoaster-esque rises and dips in the values of precious metals demonstrates clearly the biggest flaw in investing in precious metals: they’re incredibly volatile investments. Jumps of 50% in value in a single year aren’t unusual over the history of precious metals, nor are drops of 50% in value.

In other words, right now we’re (at the very least) sitting fairly far up along the run-up in value of an extremely volatile commodity. This is not a place I want to be unless I’m truly hedging against something disastrous, and the only situation in which I’m doing that is if I’m convinced that other investments are going to lose the majority of their value in the very near future.

Thus, often, gold is sold alongside a healthy dose of paranoia. Much of the recent popularity in precious metals has come with gold sellers advertising on apocalyptic talk radio shows. Those shows spend a lot of time convincing people that the American economy is about to collapse and other apocalyptic facts so that the sales job for gold becomes much easier – which is exactly why gold sellers are happy to pay good money for these apocalyptic radio hosts to do the gold sales pitch for them. They both make money and the listener who buys in is left holding a very volatile investment near the top of its value.

(An aside: you would be shocked how often gold sellers want me to pitch their products to you. Often, they’re offering good money to do so.)

Another factor is that in a limited market like this, speculators run rampant. Every significant commodity market has speculators – people who are more interested in turning a short-term buck than earning money on a lasting investment. I don’t see anything wrong with speculation, but in order to compete with speculators, you have to really know what you’re doing in that market and very few individual investors do.

So, When Should One Invest?
I think that if you have a large portfolio of investments that includes a lot of other asset classes – domestic and foreign stocks, bonds, cash, foreign currency, real estate, and so on – precious metals might be another element you might want to include. Obviously, this element would be a very volatile piece of your investment picture, but you can balance that with other stable investments.

I would not buy precious metals unless I already had a significant amount of investments to counterbalance the volatility. If you don’t already have a lot of investments, buying precious metals means that you’re making the sum total of your investments incredibly volatile. You might wake up in three months to find that your life’s savings has lost 50% of its value.

I would absolutely not try to “play the gold market” (or the silver or the platinum market) unless I knew exactly what I was doing. In other words, if I had studied the markets extensively for years and had experience in short-term investing, I might try it. This excludes the vast majority of investors out there and most likely excludes you.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.