Are you expecting the world economic order to suffer a complete collapse? Do you think zombies will rise up and attack? Are you turned on by numismatics? If you answer yes to any of these questions, buying gold coins might be for you. If you didn't answer yes (and thought numismatics was a "dirty" word) then here are some suggestions for getting exposure to gold without buying coins.
The problem with gold coins
Gold coins are an easy way to get access to gold for the average investor. There are basically two varieties: bullion and collectible coins. Bullion is best bought directly from the U.S. Mint, which sells gold, silver, and other precious metal coins. The options include Eagles, special runs, and commemorative coinage. The cost is higher than gold, since the coins have to be made and sold, but the prices you pay are there for you to see and compare.
Buying from an intermediary or coin dealer leads to mark ups that may not be quite as transparent. Shopping around is probably even more important if you are looking for collectible coins, which trade based on collectible value over and above gold prices, and are not the best option if you just want to own some gold.
Once you own gold, however, you've got a problem. First, if you try to sell it whatever markup you paid is gone. The price of gold will have to rise by more than the markup if you want to turn a profit. Once again, shopping around is key. If you try to sell to a dealer, he or she needs to make a living and will try to get your gold on the cheap.
If you don't want to sell, holding on to gold is equally problematic. Gold is expensive and desirable. It's not something you leave laying around the house. So you'll either have to find a place to stash it at home (like a fireproof safe) or put it in a safe deposit box. The latter option, of course, means you are now paying an ongoing fee for the privilege of owning gold coins. Which brings up another point, even if you do choose to use your gold as an expensive paperweight: other than holding down a few papers it's not doing that much for you.
Other gold options
If all you want is exposure to gold, instead of buying coins you should consider an exchange traded fund (ETF) like SPDR Gold Trust (NYSEMKT:GLD). Essentially, this is a pooled investment vehicle that owns -- you guessed it -- gold bullion. Over 700 tonnes worth at recent count. The trust charges an annual fee of 0.40%, meaning that for every $1,000 invested you'll be paying roughly $4. And you can easily sell the shares in the open market whenever you want. For most investors this is a pretty good alternative to owning gold coins directly.
Another way to get exposure to gold, though not as directly, is to buy shares of gold miners like industry giant Barrick Gold Corporation (NYSE:GOLD). This clearly brings with it a lot more work. For example, Barrick is the largest gold producer and pulls the metal from the ground for a relatively low cost. But--and this is a big but--it made a few questionable investments when gold prices were higher that are now weighing on its performance and growth prospects. Basically, if you choose to buy gold miners directly, you'll need to do your homework. For that extra effort, however, you could benefit from dividends. In the case of Barrick, that's a modest 1.7% or so. Competitor GoldCorp (NYSE:GG) yields nearly 3%. Both are better than you'll get buy owning gold coins or SPDR Gold Trust.
Alternatively, you could buy a fund or ETF that invests in gold miners. A good example is Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT:GDX). This ETF owns a cross section of miners using a capitalization weighting (essentially, bigger companies are bigger holdings than smaller ones). The cost is 0.53% in management fees. If you are a bit more aggressive, you might consider the Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT:GDXJ). This ETF owns small cap miners and charges 0.57%. Both of these ETFs have paid dividends in the past, though each has had years in which no dividends have been disbursed.
Vanguard Precious Metals and Mining Fund (NASDAQMUTFUND:VGPMX) is an open-end fund option. It has a low expense ratio of 0.25%, but isn't a pure play gold or gold mining investment. However, if you are seeking broad exposure to precious metals for diversification purposes, this is a great option. That said, historically, the fund hasn't paid any distributions. It is, however, mighty cheap to own, making it a good option if you want to keep costs down.
For really aggressive investors, another way to invest in gold is via GAMCO Global Gold, Natural Resources & Income Trust (NYSEMKT:GGN). This is a closed-end fund run by Mario Gabelli's asset management company. It's name pretty much tells you that it invests well beyond gold, but what it doesn't say is that the closed-end fund makes extensive use of covered call writing to generate income. Since gold and other commodities are often volatile, that leads to a wide price swings for related stocks. And, thus, plenty of opportunity to write covered calls and generate income.
It's not a low risk option by any stretch of the imagination, but it currently has a yield of nearly 12%. The fund will increase and decrease its distribution based on market conditions, so don't count on the dividend remaining at its current $0.09 a month. But you should get some level of income from the investment through most markets.
Zombie attack! Not.
Gold can provide an important counterbalance to a diversified portfolio. However, gold coins aren't the only, and perhaps not the best, option for investors to get that exposure. If you like coins or think the financial world as we know it is about to collapse, go ahead and buy some bullion to stash away. If not, consider filling your gold bucket in some other way.