The 'Gold Beta' Of Mining Stocks And Why We Continue To Avoid Them

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 |  Includes: ABX, GDXJ, GFI, GG, GLD, XOM
by: Sam Kirtley

In this article we aim to explain the relationship between the movements in the price of gold and movements in gold stocks.

The financial tool that measures this relationship is the asset’s “Beta.” Beta is a measure of risk and compares the historical return of asset X with the return on the relevant market index over the same time period (e.g. returns on Google in the past 5 years vs. returns on the S&P 500 in the past 5 years).

A positive Beta indicates the asset’s returns generally move in the same direction as the whole market. A ne.g.ative Beta indicates the opposite, when the market is rising the asset is generally falling and vice versa. A Beta of zero indicates the asset’s price moves independently of the market. A Beta higher than one indicates the relevant asset moves in the same direction as the market, but with greater magnitude. In times of market growth, an asset with a Beta >1 will return more than the market, but conversely, in downturns, the asset will suffer greater losses than the market’s.

By definition, the Beta of the market is one – that is, the returns on the market are exactly correlated with the returns on the market in direction and magnitude.

Generally speaking the higher the Beta, the riskier the asset, and the higher its exposure to movements in the market. For example, Ford Motor Company’s current Beta given by Yahoo Finance is 2.28. If the S&P 500 were to rise by 10% over the next year, one would expect to see an (approximate) 22.8% rise in Ford’s stock price; conversely a 10% fall in the S&P would likely see a 22.8% fall in Ford’s stock. 2.28 is a relatively high Beta, implying Ford is a relatively risky stock. In contrast, Exxon Mobil’s (NYSE:XOM) current Beta is 0.53, implying a lower risk investment, providing gains (or losses) of less magnitude than the market’s. If one is bullish on the equity market, higher Beta stocks such as Ford allow for a higher return over stocks such as Exxon. High Beta stocks are a bull’s best friend.

Note: Beta, as with all financial statistics and measures, is based entirely on past information. It is a tool, not a crystal ball and should be treated with due scepticism applied to all financial statistics.

Intuitively, Beta is dependent on the nature of the industry concerned. Exxon’s low Beta is likely due to the inelasticity of demand for fossil fuels, and as such their income stream is relatively constant irrespective of the state of the market/economy as firms and consumers always need fossil fuels. Conversely, Ford’s profits are reliant on sales of motor vehicles which are far less frequent in a downturn; hence Ford suffers greater than Exxon when market conditions worsen. The converse is also true. When the economy is growing, vehicle sales pick up at a far greater rate than the demand for fossil fuels and Ford is a greater beneficiary of a bull market than Exxon.

The same reasoning above applies to gold stocks versus gold. We can measure the returns of gold stocks versus the returns of physical gold with the Beta statistic. Instead of measuring mining stocks against the S&P 500, our “market benchmark” is now the price of gold. Some straightforward analysis reveals the following:

The data above shows gold stocks offering increased exposure to the price of gold, as the majority of the Betas for these mining stocks/indexes are > 1. Again, if we expected to see a 10% rise in gold in the next year, we would expect to see an approximate 10.8% rise in the HUI index (using the 1 year Beta statistic). At this point one may be thinking, if that is the case, why not trade mining stocks for increased exposure if one is bullish on gold, as the return will exceed that on gold itself. The graph shown below should shed some light on why we believe this is a flawed strate.g.y.

Click to enlarge
(Click to enlarge)

Although, gold and mining stocks usually move together, as is the broad trend above, there are periods where this is simply not the case. Mid April through to September 2011 is a period where a gold bull invested in mining stocks would have been thoroughly underwhelmed with the performance of his stock, objectively and even more so relative to gold over the same period. His view on gold was totally correct, but his decision to invest in mining stocks (Betas of > 1) to increase his exposure to the predicted rise in gold was punished. This theoretical trader would have rewarded his correct outlook handsomely by using leveraged instruments that have a direct relationship with gold, rather than mining stocks which do not. As explained in a previous article mining stocks are susceptible to various external factors that are difficult to anticipate and require extensive analysis over and above that of gold.

Whilst it is true more often than not that mining stocks move in the same direction as gold, periods where this relationship does not hold are one of the reasons we currently have no interest in trading or investing in mining stocks. Why form a bullish view on gold and buy mining stocks based on this view, only to see gold rise and mining stocks fall, (April 2011).

SK Options Trading is primarily involved in trading gold. We primarily focus our analysis on these two metals and partly attribute our past success to knowing these commodities and their relevant market forces inside out. Concerning ourselves with analyzing mining stocks and the various risks and other factors at play is not the most efficient use of our time, particularly when various factors that affect mining stocks are almost impossible to anticipate. To provide you, the subscriber with the best return possible, we choose to focus purely on gold and trade options based on GLD. Visit skoptionstrading.com for more information.

Using gold stocks to increase exposure to gold is a terrible strate.g.y in our view. Leverage is not a constraint in modern finance. Derivatives, ETFs on margin, leveraged ETNs, and leveraged ETNs on margin all serve the same purpose as a trader using mining stocks to increase exposure to the gold price, the difference being these instruments have a direct relationship with gold. Our preferred strate.g.y is an options trading portfolio that is traded to optimize and maximize potential profits, using options that are directed based on the price of gold with no other factors influencing their performance.

The gold bull using these instruments will always be rewarded concordant to his view, when gold prices rise. The gold bull using mining stocks to gain exposure to gold will usually be rewarded with a rise in gold. It is this dubiety we aim to avoid.

Disclosure: I am long GLD. I am long GLD via options.