Imagine yourself sitting in a stream swirling water in a pan, desperately hoping to see a small yellow glint of gold and dreaming of striking it rich. America has come a long way since the early 1850s, but gold still holds a prominent place in our global economy today. Here's a comprehensive introduction to gold, from why it's valuable and how we obtain it to how to invest in it, the risks and benefits of each approach, and advice on where beginners should start.

Why is gold valuable?

In ancient times, gold's malleability and luster led to its use in jewelry and early coins. It was also hard to dig gold out of the ground -- and the more difficult something is to obtain, the higher it is valued. 

Over time, humans began using the precious metal as a way to facilitate trade and accumulate and store wealth. In fact, early paper currencies were generally backed by gold, with every printed bill corresponding to an amount of gold held in a vault somewhere for which it could, technically, be exchanged (this rarely happened). This approach to paper money lasted well into the 20th century. Nowadays, modern currencies are largely fiat currencies, so the link between gold and paper money has long been broken. However, people still love the yellow metal.

Where does demand for gold come from?

The largest demand industry by far is jewelry, which accounts for around 50% of gold demand. Another 40% comes from direct physical investment in gold, including that used to create coins, bullion, medals, and gold bars. (Bullion is a gold bar or coin stamped with the amount of gold it contains and the gold's purity. It is different than numismatic coins, collectibles that trade based on demand for the specific type of coin rather than its gold content.) 

Investors in physical gold include individuals, central banks, and, more recently, exchange-traded funds that purchase gold on behalf of others. Gold is often viewed as a “safe-haven” investment. If paper money were to suddenly become worthless, the world would have to fall back on something of value to facilitate trade. This is one of the reasons that investors tend to push up the price of gold when financial markets are volatile.

Since gold is a good conductor of electricity, the remaining demand for gold comes from industry, for use in things such as dentistry, heat shields, and tech gadgets. 

How is the price of gold determined?

Gold is a commodity that trades based on supply and demand. The interplay between supply and demand ultimately determines what the spot price of gold is at any given time.

The demand for jewelry is fairly constant, though economic downturns do, obviously, lead to some temporary reductions in demand from this industry. The demand from investors, including central banks, however, tends to inversely track the economy and investor sentiment. When investors are worried about the economy, they often buy gold, and based on the increase in demand, push its price higher. You can keep track of gold's ups and downs at the website of the World Gold Council, an industry trade group backed by some of the largest gold miners in the world. 

How much gold is there?

Gold is actually quite plentiful in nature but is difficult to extract. For example, seawater contains gold -- but in such small quantities it would cost more to extract than the gold would be worth. So there is a big difference between the availability of gold and how much gold there is in the world. The World Gold Council estimates that there are about 190,000 metric tons of gold above ground being used today and roughly 54,000 metric tons of gold that can be economically extracted from the Earth using current technology. Advances in extraction methods or materially higher gold prices could shift that number. Gold has been discovered near undersea thermal vents in quantities that suggest it might be worth extracting if prices rose high enough.  

A person wearing a yellow reflective vest and work gloves, holding a rock containing gold

Image source: Getty Images.

How do we get gold?

Although panning for gold was a common practice during the California Gold Rush, nowadays it is mined from the ground. While gold can be found by itself, it's far more commonly found along with other metals, including silver and copper. Thus, a miner may actually produce gold as a by-product of its other mining efforts.

Miners begin by finding a place where they believe gold is located in large enough quantities that it can be economically obtained. Then local governments and agencies have to grant the company permission to build and operate a mine. Developing a mine is a dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming process with little to no economic return until the mine is finally operational -- which often takes a decade or more from start to finish. 

How well does gold hold its value in a downturn?

The answer depends partly on how you invest in gold, but a quick look at gold prices relative to stock prices during the bear market of the 2007-2009 recession provides a telling example.

Between Nov. 30, 2007, and June 1, 2009, the S&P 500 index fell 36%. The price of gold, on the other hand, rose 25%. This is the most recent example of a material and prolonged stock downturn, but it's also a particularly dramatic one because, at the time, there were very rea­l concerns about the viability of the global financial system.

When capital markets are in turmoil, gold often performs relatively well as investors seek out safe-haven investments.

Ways to invest in gold

Here are all the ways you can invest in gold, from owning the actual metal to investing in companies that finance gold miners.

Investment Option Pros Cons Examples
Jewelry
  • Easy to acquire
  • High markups
  • Questionable resale value
  • Just about any piece of gold jewelry with sufficient gold content (generally 14k or higher)
Physical gold
  • Direct exposure
  • Tangible ownership
  • Markups
  • No upside beyond gold price changes
  • Storage
  • Can be difficult to liquidate
  • Collectible coins
  • Bullion (noncollectible gold bars and coins)
Gold certificates
  • Direct exposure
  • No need to own physical gold
  • Only as good as the company that backs them
  • Only a few companies issue them
  • Largely illiquid
  • Perth Mint Certificates
Gold ETFs
  • Direct exposure
  • Highly liquid
  • Fees
  • No upside beyond gold price changes
  • SPDR Gold Shares (NYSEMKT: GLD)
Futures contracts
  • Little up-front capital required to control a large amount of gold
  • Highly liquid
  • Indirect gold exposure
  • Highly leveraged
  • Contracts are time-limited
  • Futures contracts from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (constantly updating as old contracts expire)
Gold mining stocks
  • Upside from mine development
  • Usually tracks gold prices
  • Indirect gold exposure
  • Mine operating risks
  • Exposure to other commodities
  • Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX)
  • Goldcorp (NYSE: GG)
  • Newmont Goldcorp (NYSE: NEM)
Gold mining-focused mutual funds and ETFs
  • Diversification
  • Upside from mine development
  • Usually tracks gold prices
  • Indirect gold exposure
  • Mine operating risks
  • Exposure to other commodities
  • Fidelity Select Gold Portfolio (NASDAQMUTFUND: FSAGX)
  • VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT: GDX)
  • VanEck Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT: GDXJ)
Streaming and royalty
companies
  • Diversification
  • Upside from mine development
  • Usually tracks gold prices
  • Consistent wide margins
  • Indirect gold exposure
  • Mine operating risks
  • Exposure to other commodities
  • Wheaton Precious Metals (NYSE: WPM)
  • Royal Gold (NASDAQ: RGLD)
  • Franco-Nevada  (NYSE: FNV)

Jewelry

The markups in the jewelry industry make this a bad option for investing in gold. Once you've bought it, its resale value is likely to fall materially. This also assumes you're talking about gold jewelry of at least 10 karat. (Pure gold is 24 karat.) Extremely expensive jewelry may hold its value, but more because it is a collector's item than because of its gold content.

Bullion, bars, and coins

These are the best option for owning physical gold. However, there are markups to consider. The money it takes to turn raw gold into a coin is often passed on to the end customer. Also, most coin dealers will add a markup to their prices to compensate them for acting as middlemen. Perhaps the best option for most investors looking to own physical gold is to buy gold bullion directly from the U.S. Mint, so you know you are dealing with a reputable dealer.

Then you have to store the gold you've purchased. That could mean renting a safe deposit box from the local bank, where you could end up paying an ongoing cost for storage. Selling, meanwhile, can be difficult since you have to bring your gold to a dealer, who may offer you a price that's below the current spot price.

Gold certificates

Another way to get direct exposure to gold without physically owning it, gold certificates are notes issued by a company that owns gold. These notes are usually for unallocated gold, meaning there's no specific gold associated with the certificate, but the company says it has enough to back all outstanding certificates. You can buy allocated gold certificates, but the costs are higher. The big problem here is that the certificates are really only as good as the company backing them, sort of like banks before FDIC insurance was created. This is why one of the most desirable options for gold certificates is the Perth Mint, which is backed by the government of Western Australia. That said, if you're going to simply buy a paper representation of gold, you might want to consider exchange-traded funds instead. 

Exchange-traded funds

If you don't particularly care about holding the gold you own but want direct exposure to the metal, then an exchange-traded fund (ETF) like SPDR Gold Shares is probably the way to go. This fund directly purchases gold on behalf of its shareholders. You'll likely have to pay a commission to trade an ETF, and there will be a management fee (SPDR Gold Share's expense ratio is 0.40%), but you'll benefit from a liquid asset that invests directly in gold coins, bullion, and bars.

Futures contracts

Another way to own gold indirectly, futures contracts are a highly leveraged and risky choice that is inappropriate for beginners. Even experienced investors should think twice here. Essentially, a futures contract is an agreement between a buyer and a seller to exchange a specified amount of gold at a specified future date and price. As gold prices move up and down, the value of the contract fluctuates, with the accounts of the seller and buyer adjusted accordingly. Futures contracts are generally traded on exchanges, so you'd need to talk to your broker to see if it supports them. 

The biggest problem: Futures contracts are usually bought with only a small fraction of the total contract cost. For example, an investor might only have to put down 20% of the full cost of the gold controlled by the contract. This creates leverage, which increases an investor's potential gains -- and losses. And since contracts have specific end dates, you can't simply hold on to a losing position and hope it rebounds. Futures contracts are a complex and time-consuming investment that can materially amplify gains and losses. Although they are an option, they are high-risk and not recommended for beginners.

Gold mining stocks

One major issue with a direct investment in gold is that there's no growth potential. An ounce of gold today will be the same ounce of gold 100 years from now. That's one of the key reasons famed investor Warren Buffett doesn't like gold -- it is, essentially, an unproductive asset.

This is why some investors turn to mining stocks. Their prices tend to follow the prices of the commodities on which they focus; however, because miners are running businesses that can expand over time, investors can benefit from increasing production. This can provide upside that owning physical gold never will.

However, running a business also comes with the accompanying risks. Mines don't always produce as much gold as expected, workers sometimes go on strike, and disasters like a mine collapse or deadly gas leak can halt production and even cost lives. All in all, gold miners can perform better or worse than gold -- depending on what's going on at that particular miner.

In addition, most gold miners produce more than just gold. That's a function of the way gold is found in nature, as well as diversification decisions on the part of the mining company's management. If you're looking for a diversified investment in precious and semiprecious metals, then a miner that produces more than just gold could be seen as a net positive. However, if what you really want is pure gold exposure, every ounce of a different metal that a miner pulls from the ground simply dilutes your gold exposure.

Potential investors should pay close attention to a company's mining costs, existing mine portfolio, and expansion opportunities at both existing and new assets when deciding on which gold mining stocks to buy.

Mining-focused ETFs

If you're looking for a single investment that provides broadly diversified exposure to gold miners, then low-cost index-based ETFs like VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF and VanEck Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF are a good option. Both also have exposure to other metals, but the latter focuses on smaller miners; their expense ratios are 0.53% and 0.54%, respectively.

As you research gold ETFs, look closely at the index being tracked, paying particular attention to how it is constructed, the weighting approach, and when and how it gets rebalanced. All are important pieces of information that are easy to overlook when you assume that a simple ETF name will translate into a simple investment approach.

Mutual funds

Investors who prefer the idea of owning mining stocks over direct gold exposure can effectively own a portfolio of miners by investing in a mutual fund. This saves the legwork of researching the various mining options and is a simple way to create a diversified portfolio of mining stocks with a single investment. There are a lot of options here, with most major mutual fund houses offering open-end funds that invest in gold miners, such as the Fidelity Select Gold Portfolio and Vanguard Precious Metals Fund

However, as the Vanguard fund's name implies, you are likely to find a fund's portfolio contains exposure to miners that deal with precious, semiprecious, and base metals other than gold. That's not materially different from owning mining stocks directly, but you should keep this factor in mind, because not all fund names make this clear. (For example, the Fidelity Select Gold Portfolio also invests in companies that mine silver and other precious metals.)

Fees for actively managed funds, meanwhile, can be materially higher than those of index-based products. You'll want to read a fund's prospectus to get a better handle on its investing approach, whether it is actively managed or a passive index fund, and its cost structure. Note that expense ratios can vary greatly between funds.

Also, when you buy shares of an actively managed mutual fund, you are trusting that the fund managers can invest profitably on your behalf. That doesn't always work out as planned.

Streaming and royalty companies

For most investors, buying stock in a streaming and royalty company is probably the best all-around option for investing in gold. These companies provide miners with cash up front for the right to buy gold and other metals from specific mines at reduced rates in the future. They are like specialty finance companies that get paid in gold, allowing them to avoid many of the headaches and risks associated with running a mine.

Benefits of such companies includes widely diversified portfolios, contractually built-in low prices that lead to wide margins in good years and bad, and exposure to gold price changes (since streaming companies make money by selling the gold they buy from the miners). That said, none of the major streaming companies has a pure gold portfolio, with silver the most common added exposure. (Franco-Nevada, the largest streaming and royalty company, also has exposure to oil and gas drilling.) So you'll need to do a little homework to fully understand what commodity exposures you'll get from your investment. And while streaming companies avoid many of the risks of running a mine, they don't completely sidestep them: If a mine isn't producing any gold, there's nothing for a streaming company to buy.

The built-in wide margins that result from the streaming approach provide an important buffer for these businesses. That has allowed the profitability of streamers to hold up better than miners' when gold prices are falling. This is the key factor that gives streaming companies an edge as an investment. They provide exposure to gold, they offer growth potential via the investment in new mines, and their wide margins through the cycle provide some downside protection when gold prices fall. That combination is hard to beat. 

What's the best way for a beginner to invest in gold?

There's no perfect way to own gold: Each option comes with trade-offs. That said, probably the best strategy for most people is to buy stock in streaming and royalty companies. However, what to invest in is just one piece of the puzzle: There are other factors that you need to consider.

How much should you invest in gold?

Gold can be a volatile investment, so you shouldn't put a large amount of your assets into it -- it's best to keep it to less than 10% of your overall stock portfolio. The real benefit, for new and experienced investors alike, comes from the diversification that gold can offer. Once you've built your gold position, make sure to periodically balance your portfolio so that your relative exposure to it remains the same.

When should you buy gold?

It's best to buy small amounts over time. When gold prices are high, the price of gold-related stocks rises as well. That can mean lackluster returns in the near term, but it doesn't diminish the benefit over the long term of holding gold to diversify your portfolio. By buying a little at a time, you can dollar-cost average into the position.

As with any investment, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for how you should invest in gold. But armed with the knowledge of how the gold industry works, what each type of investment entails, and what to consider when weighing your options, you can make the decision that's right for you.