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Precious metal investors have been on a wild ride so far in 2011. After falling to start the year, gold took off from its level just above $1,300/oz., skyrocketing higher on inflation concerns and an increasingly weak dollar. The price eventually hit the $1,577 mark in early May before quickly selling off, falling by close to $100/oz. in a matter of weeks. While a stronger dollar and declining fears over inflation in some of the world's key emerging markets has certainly played a role in gold's short term demise, some believe that gold has hit a near term top and that this is just a speculative bubble popping.
Many have attributed at least part of the tremendous run-up in gold prices to the surge in interest in gold ETFs, tools that have been embraced by everyone from small individuals to billionaire hedge fund managers. Many of the world's largest (and most successful) managers have put huge chunks of their assets into precious metals ETFs over the last year, and investors seeking to replicate their strategies have utilized the exact same instruments to express similar views. One often outspoken hedge fund guru who has had plenty to say about gold in months past is George Soros, the billionaire manager who is probably most famous for his Quantum Fund and attempts to "break the Bank" of England in the early '90s. Soros has called gold the "ultimate asset bubble" in 2010 but maintained large positions in the metal nonetheless, riding gold ETPs to new heights as investors around the world piled into precious metals. However, it appears that recently Soros has finally put his money where his mouth is and has pulled back significantly on his gold holdings, apparently embracing his talk of a bursting bubble in the sector.
According to recent reports, the legendary hedge fund manager sold nearly $800 million worth of the yellow metal in the first quarter of 2011, representing a huge reversal in sentiment on gold. Soros Fund Management now owns less than 50,000 shares of GLD -- worth about $7 million -- a huge sell-off considering that at the end of 2010 he owned close to 4.7 million shares of the fund (valued at just over $655 million). Additionally, it was reported that he also sold five million shares of the iShares Gold Trust (NYSE: IAU ) as well, further demonstrating Soros' sudden disdain for the physical metal [see Precious Metal ETFs: Physical vs. Equity Exposure].
However, the news wasn't all bad for gold investors; although Soros did sell off some gold miners such as Kinross Gold Corp. and Novagold Resources, he did add to his position in the world's largest gold miner, Barrick Gold, and also bought up more shares of Freeport McMoran Copper and Gold. Many have noticed that mining stocks have failed to keep pace with the appreciation in the related metals, potentially making it more attractive to achieve commodity exposure indirectly through stocks of companies engaged in the extraction of natural resources. Soros apparently falls into that camp, willing to give a second look at some of the mining companies and content to concentrate his position in gold-related equities for the time being. After all, even after the large sell-off, Soros still has over $200 million in gold-related ETPs, meaning that this may be more of a shift than an outright abandonment of his position in the metal. "I assume he was sitting on a gigantic mountain of profit in that position, and the prudent thing to do would've been to book some of it," said Matt Zeman, head of trading at Kingsview Financial. "Because he's leaving, you're going to see a lot of small speculators jumping ship."
For investors looking for gold mining options, there are a wide variety of funds targeting various segments of the space, allowing investors to accomplish any objective in the sector. We have briefly highlighted some of the key details from the funds below, allowing investors to get a sense of some of the nuances in each product [For a more in-depth comparison of the gold miners see Gold Miner ETFs: Breaking Down All the Options]:
- Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSE: GDX ) : The most popular fund in the space, this ETF trades more than 10 million shares a day and offers investors a near 17% weighting to Barrick Gold, the firm that Soros added to earlier this year. However, top 10 allocations also go to one of the firms that he sold: Kinross Gold.
- Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF (NYSE: GDXJ ) : For a more volatile pick than GDX that can offer additional leverage to spot prices, this fund could be an intriguing choice. It targets small and mid-sized gold mining companies, which could provide a different investment profile than the large caps in the sector, potentially offering greater return potential accompanied by additional risk [Playing Precious Metals With Equity ETFs].
- PowerShares Global Gold & Precious Metals Mining Fund (PSAU): For a more balanced play on the broad precious metal mining sector, PSAU is a viable option. The fund invests in close to 70 companies that are engaged in some aspect of the mining industry, including those that mine for platinum and silver. However, while this diversification may be welcomed news for some, those looking for a concentrated play on gold miners are advised to look elsewhere.
- Global X Pure Gold Miners ETF (GGGG): For investors who only want to invest in companies that mine for gold and nothing else, this relatively new fund from Global X accomplishes that job pretty well. The fund tracks an index of companies that generate the vast majority of their revenues from gold, forgoing exposure to some of the world's largest mining firms in favor of smaller and more specialized miners [Do You Need a Pure Gold Miners ETF?].
- Global X Gold Explorers ETF (NYSE: GLDX ) : For a more speculative play, this ETF could be interesting for risk-tolerant investors. The fund invests only in companies that are gold explorers, or those that are looking for new gold deposits. Due to the extremely risky nature of this business as well, as the fact that many do not have significant revenues and are small caps, this product is likely to be the most volatile on this list, offering the greatest upside potential if the gold rally continues, but considerable risk as well.
While these funds many not be appropriate for all investors, they could make for a nice addition for those seeking to pull back on their physical precious metal exposure and are instead looking to load up on equities instead, especially if this corner of the market sees the next wave of investment. "As the precious metals rally ends, you'll get transition toward related equities," said James Dailey, Manager at TEAM Financial Asset Management LLC. "You don't see any speculative appetite for gold stocks yet." [Also see Three Legendary Investors With Huge Positions in GLD]
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Disclosure: Long IAU and gold bullion.
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