Ample research supports the notion that the addition of gold and other commodities to one's portfolio produces a higher efficient frontier -- or more plainly stated, a higher expected return with lower risk. Unfortunately, many portfolios have been constructed to include commodity exposure through the inclusion of commodity-related equities, especially with gold. While this approach may have worked at lower gold prices, it has failed since early 2011, when gold traded above $1400. Not only has this approach failed, but gold miners have been one of the poorest performing sectors. The failure of this approach of portfolio optimization is most easily seen through the following charts:
- The first chart shows how poorly gold miners (GDX) and junior gold miners (GDXJ) have performed compared to gold (GLD). Note that while gold is up over 25%, junior gold miners are down 45%:
- One can often blame the equity market for underperformance in gold miners versus gold, as miners are companies with earnings, and when equity markets are weak, most stocks are weak. However, if one compares the GDX and GDXJ to the S&P500 (SPY), this argument collapses. Not only have gold miners underperformed gold, they have also significantly underperformed the S&P500:
- The idea that one can gain exposure to gold through mining companies clearly has not held. A look at the correlation between the miners and gold shows the failure of this historic relationship. The below chart shows the correlation over the last 20, 50, and 100 weeks between gold and gold miners. Note that while although the correlation remains high over the shortest (20 week) period, over the long term (100 weeks), the correlation has trended to zero:
- The case is even worse for the junior gold miners ETF. The correlation moved into negative territory:
Why has this relationship changed? I don't have the answer to that, but one potential source of the discrepancy is that as gold reached historical highs at the end of 2010, mining companies may have increased hedging activities. This would obviously limit their ability to participate in any gold appreciation above that level ($1400).
The eccentric hedge fun manager Hugh Hendry makes a different argument for further weakness in gold mining stocks, having stated that:
"There is no rationale for owning gold mining equities. It is as close as you get to insanity. The risk premium goes up when the gold price goes up. Societies are more envious of your gold at $3000 than at $300. And there is no valuation argument that protects you against the risk of confiscation."
Basically, the more expensive gold is, the higher the probability that gold mines will be nationalized. This leads to a higher risk premium required for gold miners and accordingly, a lower stock price when completing any sort of fundamental valuation.
The paradox is that if nationalization continues, the market ends up with less supply: a public government will not be nearly as efficient as a private company. Less supply means higher prices and accordingly, a higher probability of further nationalization. And while nationalization may only be possible in developing countries, higher tax rates or government royalties are equally likely in developed countries. Recent examples of such actions include the ongoing dispute over Kyrgyzstan's gold and Venezuela's move to nationalize gold just over a year ago.
While I'm sure there may be evidence to counter this argument, the failure of miners to participate in gold's appreciation above $1400 does support this. I am not an expert in gold, however, I have spent significant time studying technical analysis. One thing you learn early in technical analysis -- and probably one of the most important rules is that "the trend is your friend" -- simply implying that you always want to position yourself alongside the trend. Well, the trend has been towards less and less correlation and underperformance for gold miners. Hendry himself is long gold and short gold miners. Until new evidence is available of a change in this relationship, it is likely that the current trend will persist.
To return to portfolio management, it should be clear at this point that the addition of gold-related equities does not raise the efficient frontier (higher return with lower risk). One should look at allocating a portion of their portfolio to outright gold exposure, either in the form of a gold ETF such as GLD, or even physical ownership.
It looks like Goldmember had it right in the 2002 "Austin Powers" movie, when he rather enthusiastically stated, "I love Goldddd." Interestingly enough, gold was under $300/ounce back then, and 2002 marked the breakout of the 10-year secular bull trend gold remains in today.