In this article Nik Bienkowski considers the way that the gold ETP has changed the way investors think about gold and commodities. With $130 billion (80+ Moz) accumulated in ten years, the gold ETP (as a proportion of the global ETP industry) has taken on greater significance than one might have ever imagined.

The 28 March marked the 10th anniversary of the gold Exchange Traded Product (ETP)industry. The gold ETP changed gold investing as we knew it, allowing investors to ‘own’ physical gold bullion and to trade this through their mobile phone and brokerage account. Gold could now be traded like an equity. What now seems simple and hugely successful was initially complex in design. Now, there are some 54 physical gold ETPs with $130 billion in assets and daily trading of more than $2 billion. It would not be surprising for there to be between 100 to 150 gold ETPs by March 2023.

We can’t ignore the fact that the gold ETP came about during a time that was extremely supportive for gold, especially relative to equities. Whatever one’s reasons for investing in gold, there has been a reason for everyone to invest in gold since the gold ETP was launched. Gold ETPs and Exchange Traded Commodities (ETCs) make up 7% and 10% of the global ETP market respectively, which is high relative to average portfolio allocations – this statistic may indicate the importance of the gold ETP to investors as a way to access the gold price. The gold ETP made investing in gold secure, simple, cost-efficient and extremely simple. The gold ETP certainly was the right product at the right time. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next 10 years.

Background to the development of the gold ETF

28 March 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of the world’s first gold ETP1 and hence the gold ETP industry. It was on the same day in 2003 that Gold Bullion Securities began trading on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) under the ASX code of ‘GOLD’. GOLD was developed by Gold Bullion Limited (a predecessor to ETF Securities), a special purpose vehicle created by Graham Tuckwell in association with the World Gold Council, over a nine-month process. However, many other events occurred to make the gold ETP what it is today, including: a Wine Exchange in Australia, which used listed securities backed by physical wine in storage to allow investors to trade actual cases of specified wine (similar to an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) ‘creation basket’) and which GOLD was modelled after; an Australian entrepreneur whose idea of a gold ETP coincided with the World Gold Council’s plans to do the same in the US; and the growth and success of the global ETP and ETF industry generally.

GOLD’s announcement after the first day of trading read:

Investors bought more than 700 ounces of gold on the ASX today – the first time it has been possible for funds and individual traders to buy gold bars on the stock exchange. 7,386 GOLD securities were traded for prices ranging from $55.50 to $56.00 today. The average trade was 172 securities – or 17.2 ounces of gold per investor at $9,540 per trade, indicating individual investors were the main traders on the opening day.

”Before the gold ETP came along, there were a number of ways to invest in gold, which included buying direct bullion, gold certificates, gold coins, gold savings plans and purchasing shares of gold mining companies.”

Launching with less than A$5 million in assets (supported by Tuckwell himself), GOLD was a mere drop in the ocean but one that has helped to create an industry with at least 54 physically backed gold ETPs with around 81 million oz, worth $130 billion, in assets and daily trading volumes of over $2 billion, including one of the world’s largest ETFs, the GLD.

The gold ETP – gold investment made simple

Before the gold ETP came along, there were a number of ways to invest in gold, which included buying direct bullion, gold certificates, gold coins, gold savings plans and purchasing shares of gold mining companies. Each of these ways to gain exposure to gold came with its own advantages and disadvantages; however, there was no way of owning physical gold simply and cost-effectively. The gold ETP combined the advantages of Exchange Traded Funds (which were first created more than 10 years before GOLD) and that of owning physical gold bullion:

  • Exchange traded: easy to buy and sell as little as one share (approximately 0.10oz), in an ordinary brokerage account
  • Simple and convenient: can be traded in small or large amounts, and without the need to open special accounts or sign special documentation
  • Open-ended: creation and redemption through delivery or receipt of physical gold bars means that gold ETPs will track gold bullion prices
  • Allocated bullion: backed by globally accepted London Good Delivery bars, allocated bullion is free of credit risk
  • Cost-effective: charges of around 0.40% p.a. with no entry or exit fees (other than equity brokerage charges)
  • Tracks the gold price: a gold ETP is 100% correlated with the gold price
  • Robust, secure and transparent: most gold ETPs have excellent websites and information, including gold bullion bar lists
  • Eligible: certain types of investors, including many types of funds, are not allowed to own physical commodities. These rules probably stem from when gold bullion was less mainstream and thought to be relatively ‘illiquid’ since it was not listed. With the advent of a fund or security backed by gold, restricted investors were able to purchase gold ETPs, thus physical gold could be indirectly be held by investors previously barred from such investment. This opened up gold investing to the masses.

Now that the gold ETP exists, the idea and product seem so simple. However, its simplicity is contained in its complexity. The gold ETP often brought equity trading and commodity trading together like never before. These departments at large investment banks are well separated, and often located in different offices and even countries. Their standard contracts use different terminology (e.g. ounces versus shares); they are often regulated by different entities, e.g. the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) versus the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); and the staff of these very different departments often didn’t know the other existed, or at least they had never met before.

Why invest in gold – the growth of alternative assets

A number of events occurred to make the gold ETP possible, which in turn made gold investing simple and easy. However, many investments are simple and easy to access yet don’t last long enough to turn a profit before they are shut down. But luckily for the gold ETP, the perfect storm was brewing! People invest in gold for many different reasons and gold behaves differently at different times. Many of the reasons as to why one would invest in gold have really come to the fore since the turn of this century.

Gold is uncorrelated to the major asset classes. However, during times of stress (e.g. when equities have fallen by more than a certain threshold, e.g. 2%), gold tends to outperform other assets and be negatively correlated, making gold a useful tail risk or event hedge, especially when trust is low and/or credit risk appears to be high.

With equities having performed poorly over the past 11 or so years and having become more highly correlated with each other due to the globalisation of financial markets, alternative assets came to the fore as investors sought out alternative assets that would help to diversify their portfolios and reduce downside risk. Hedge funds, gold and commodities suddenly became popular.

Fundamentals have also played an important part. On the supply side, central banks started to limit gold sales and then became net buyers; gold-mining companies stopped selling forward their production at low prices ($250 to $300/ oz back in the late 1990s and early 2000s); and production in the main gold-producing regions (US, South Africa, Australia and Canada) began to slide and production costs started to rise. On the demand side, gold started to play a part in portfolios, the gold ETP started to add to demand, low interest rates lowered the opportunity cost of holding gold versus other risk-free yielding assets such as sovereigns, and emerging markets such as China started to become major buyers and investors in gold.

Whatever your reason, there have been many great reasons to own some gold over the past 10 years.

Growth of the gold ETP market

Since the launch of GOLD in March 2013, the gold ETP industry has expanded exponentially. Most of the world’s top ETP issuers now have at least one physically backed gold ETP, and there are around 54 physical gold ETPs traded on 35 stock exchanges, trading around $2 billion per day. 97% of these products are exposed to the US dollar gold price, with 3% being hedged into a range of major currencies but primarily the Swiss franc and the euro. 61% of gold ETP assets are due to products listed in the US, with 19% in Europe (excluding Switzerland) and 16% listed in Switzerland.

In addition, there are now around an additional 70 Exchange Traded Products (often referred to as ETCs) tracking spot gold or indices based on gold futures, which make up around $2.5 billion of assets under management. The main gold futures indices include the NASDAQ Commodity Gold Index and the S&P GSCI Gold Index, and these index providers are the world’s leading mainstream providers of financial indices. These ETCs provide a range of gold investment exposures, including currency hedged, short and leverage.

The gold ETPs and the development of the global ETC market

When the world’s second gold ETP – Gold Bullion Securities (GBS) – was launched in London by a company that would later be known as ETF Securities, it was not listed as a fund but as a collateralised note backed 100% by allocated gold bullion. These products are now commonly referred to as Exchange Traded Commodities (or ETCs). GBS in London was not able to be listed as a fund (or ETF) since European fund rules did not allow investment in commodities, while a fund also has to meet certain diversification requirements – of which an investment in gold only obviously does not conform. Thus, the ETC or ETP market was born where ETF-like products could be created, providing access to products not eligible as a fund. The global ETC market thus grew from a single gold ETP to a market that now includes products tracking more than 30 different types of commodities and sectors with around $200 billion of assets (including gold). At $130 billion, gold dwarfs all other commodities.

What is surprising is that the original GBS in London was restructured and relaunched four months after the initial listing. In normal circumstances, this would have spelt the death knell for a new company and new product coming to market, but such was the demand for gold and the GBS, that it was only a wrinkle, and from which spurned a $30billion asset manager.

The benefits of gold ETPs have outweighed the benefit of equity ETPs

ETCs have brought new asset classes into the reach of every investor, increasing the size of the investors’ tool box. Until the advent of ETCs almost 10 years ago, individual investors had lacked low-cost, convenient tools for participating directly in commodities without dealing in complex derivatives markets or purchasing the shares of commodity mining companies. In terms of the global ETP market, there are approximately $2 trillion in assets, and with $130 billion in gold ETPs and $70 billion in commodity ETPs (excluding gold), gold makes up some 7% and commodities (excluding gold) make up around 3% of all global ETP assets. Some would say that this allocation to gold and commodities is too high; however, two main points to consider are: (i) the environment has been favourable to commodities and gold; and (ii) ETCs make investing in commodities extremely simple. Since the allocation to gold (at 7%) is so high, this seems to suggest that the benefits of the gold ETP to the ETP market outweighs the benefits of other ETPs. We would guess that it is more the latter since the gold ETP made investing in gold secure, simple, cost- efficient and extremely simple. In fact, since Swiss-domiciled gold ETP assets contribute nearly half of all European gold ETP assets, it is quite possible that the other European countries have some making up to do.

Gold and the next 10 years

The creation of the gold ETP and ETC industries has provided access to commodities for a wide range of investors who previously could not easily access commodity prices/indices in a robust and transparent structure. It has brought gold into the hands of ordinary investors and portfolios, and is now more than just the price per ounce quoted on the daily news.

The next 10 years will be interesting. More gold ETPs will be developed as the remaining ETP providers look to add gold ETPs to their product offering. Gold ETPs still haven’t reached their potential, especially in Asia, and China is yet to launch a range of gold ETPs that are supposedly in development. Currently, there are around 54 physically backed gold ETPs and it would not be surprising for this to grow to between 100 to 150 gold ETPs by March 2023.

It will also be interesting to watch financial market developments. Will the ‘perfect storm’ and other factors supporting gold remain in place or will equities take over? Will gold break that $2,000 mark or will gold slowly retreat like it did between 1980 and 2000 when Time magazine and many investors called for the “Death of Gold”? Perhaps investors will reduce their allocation to gold and commodities relative to equities. Whatever happens, we can be sure that the last time the masses proclaimed the death of gold, we experienced the birth of the gold ETF.

Nik Bienkowski, Co-Founder of Boost ETP.

Nik is a leading specialist in Exchange Traded Products (ETPs) with over 10 years’ experience in the sector. Nik joined a boutique firm in 2002 headed by Graham Tuckwell, where he became the third member of the team which created the world’s first gold ETP on 28 March 2003, Gold Bullion Securities. Nik then helped Graham found ETF Securities Limited where he helped to manage the business from incorporation to over 70 people and $22billion in AUM by October 2010. Since leaving ETF Securities, Nik co- founded Boost ETP, a specialist provider of short and leverage ETPs.