Not All That Glitters Is Gold

Beginning investors often latch onto headline investing trends and refuse to let go. But hidden behind every hot investment that grabs all the attention, you'll always find some related story that fewer people are talking about -- and understanding that story can lead you to some excellent investing opportunities that many will never discover.

Gold's amazing upward move is an excellent example of this phenomenon. As good as gold's returns have been, smart investors are looking beyond the yellow metal itself at other ways to exploit the less glamorous but potentially more lucrative story behind its bull run.

Define precious
When it comes to popular commodities, nothing's as good as gold. Pro or con, everyone has an opinion on gold's prospects. Moreover, its historical pedigree as a store of value throughout the centuries gives many investors a special comfort level in dealing with gold over other investments, especially when spendthrift governments and attempts at competitive currency devaluation combine to destabilize the U.S. dollar and other currencies.

It's true that some investors have looked beyond gold to its less heralded sidekick, silver. Thanks to 30-year highs for the metal, silver miners Hecla Mining (NYSE: HL  ) and Coeur d'Alene (NYSE: CDE  ) have both posted breakout gains of 30% or more just in the past couple of months, despite their vastly different financial performance lately, while Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW  ) has ridden its unique silver-streaming business model to a long series of all-time highs.

But despite the novelty value of silver, mainstream investor attention remains focused on gold. And that's unfortunate, because if you don't look beyond precious metals, you'll miss out on some even more impressive stories in commodities.

Staying on base
Base metals don't get nearly the attention that precious metals do. After all, the only thing medieval scientists wanted to do with something like lead was to turn it into gold. It takes a sector specialist to get terribly excited about zinc or aluminum.

Yet some base metals have seen price moves that rival or even exceed gold's returns. Tin prices, for instance, are up nearly 60% year to date. Nickel has seen a 30% jump in value, while copper prices are up close to 15% for the year.

Perhaps even more astoundingly, you can still find stocks in the base metals area that trade at attractive valuations. Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK  ) , for instance, has an impressive portfolio of coal, copper, and zinc resources. Yet the stock trades at less than 12 times next year's earnings estimates, despite the interest it received from a Chinese sovereign wealth fund earlier this year. Vale (NYSE: VALE  ) is known mostly for its iron ore business, but it's also the No. 2 producer of nickel, and it also counts copper and manganese among its products. Even giant BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) has its share of base metal production, although excitement over its recent offer to buy PotashCorp has made it less of a value play.

For ETF investors looking to get into base metals, the PowerShares DB Base Metals Fund (NYSE: DBB  ) invests directly in a basket of futures contracts on copper, zinc, and aluminum. A host of other ETFs let you focus in on individual commodities; aluminum, nickel, and copper are among those with ETFs available.

Look beyond the obvious
None of this means to say that gold and other precious metals won't continue their bull run for some time. With the monetary and commodities trends in its favor, gold could challenge levels once thought impossibly high. But as long as the world continues to involve in the direction of emerging market growth, resource hoarding, and a complete lack of confidence in financial instruments, the fundamentals will favor higher prices for base metals. Just don't expect to see big headlines blaring out the benefits of investing in zinc anytime soon.

When a story dominates the headlines, don't just jump in blindly. Look between the lines for interesting ideas others will miss. Sometimes, they'll lead to much better results than the more obvious plays.

True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger likes to wander but rarely gets lost. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article.  The Fool's disclosure policy is good as gold.


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  • Report this Comment On October 15, 2010, at 11:01 AM, Gonzhouse wrote:

    Good article. It's analgous to the quarterback getting all the credit but the offensive line is where the game is won or lost.

    Without industrial demand for basic commodities and other precious metals (like SILVER!!!) gold gets no spotlight.

  • Report this Comment On October 15, 2010, at 11:48 AM, XMFSinchiruna wrote:

    Dan,

    Thank you for an excellent treatment of a very worthwhile topic. Gold and silver will continue to offer precious returns, in my opinion, but you are absolutely correct that many investors may look right past compelling commodity plays like base metals, agriculture, etc. on their way to the gold patch.

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