|Whether from the handful of consultants now leading the institutional space, or directly from the stewards of our nation’s pension, endowment, and family-office wealth, skepticism over gold’s portfolio relevance remains fairly pervasive. Because investment professionals are generally well informed, competing in an industry in which performance is king, one would assume any asset class deserving of rightful consideration would enjoy a fair hearing [so it begs the question “Why Doesn’t Gold Get The Respect It Deserves?“]
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This article presents a collection of empirical evidence we view as compelling support of gold’s productive role as a portfolio-diversifying asset.
1. Gold Has Generated Consistently Positive Returns in This Millennium
Eight years of zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) have compressed returns across a wide spectrum of institutional investment regimens. Especially in the pension and endowment world, few portfolios are achieving chartered rates of return. In this environment, we find it puzzling that institutional investors still choose to ignore gold’s market-leading returns.
Indeed, it is fair to say that since the turn of the millennium, any long-term allocation to gold would have improved total returns for the vast majority of pension and endowment portfolios.
Annual Returns of Gold Versus S&P 500 Index Since 2001 (2001 to September 30, 2017)
Source: Bloomberg; S&P 500 Index returns reflect reinvested dividends.
What is it about gold’s performance that is so difficult to embrace? To us, the most interesting aspect of gold’s dogged performance since the beginning of 2001 has been the wide variety of financial, monetary and asset-market conditions that have prevailed during the various years in which gold has advanced. Along the way, every popular variable to which some portion of consensus attributes strong gold correlation has oscillated repeatedly, yet gold has advanced in the overwhelming majority of these years.
2. Gold Has Provided Strong Protection of Real Purchasing Power
Now that the S&P 500 Index has almost quadrupled from its March 6, 2009 low (666.79), few plan sponsors would equate gold’s potential portfolio “alpha” with that available among U.S. equities. However, as shown in Figure 2 below, the S&P 500, measured in gold terms, remains 64% lower today than at its 2000 peak!
During the past two corrections in the S&P 500, during which the index declined 50.50% (2000-2002) and 57.7% (2007-2009), gold provided unrivaled protection of real purchasing power. We are aware of no reasoning to suggest gold’s portfolio-protection benefits will prove any less potent during the next correction in U.S. equities. In fact, the slopes of the lines in Figure 2 suggest gold’s portfolio-insurance value has rarely been more compelling.
Figure 2: S&P 500 Index Performance Since 1981 (Nominal and Deflated by Gold Price)
3. Gold Has a Proven Track Record as a Safe-Haven Asset
In documenting an objective record of gold’s portfolio utility, one logically begins with gold’s traditional profile as a safe-haven asset. It goes without saying that gold’s safe-haven reputation accrues from bullion’s established history of relative outperformance during periods of financial stress. As shown in Figure 3, gold has done a masterful job of insulating portfolio capital from sharp declines in U.S. equities during the past three decades of financial crises.
Figure 3: Percentage Changes for S&P 500 Index and Spot Gold (lhs) Versus Absolute Change in VIX Index Level
Source: World Gold Council
4. Gold Has Low Correlation to Traditional Asset Classes
As the investment advisory business has become more scientific, amid increasingly frequent financial shocks, the holy grail of portfolio allocation has become the overarching search for non-correlating assets. Methodologies for identifying and measuring non-correlating assets are in no short supply. However, a routine calculation employed by contemporary risk managers is stress testing portfolio components under simulated conditions of both positive and negative economic trends.
As shown in Figure 4 below, gold’s correlation to traditional asset classes remains uniquely low during periods of both economic expansion and contraction. In other words, gold’s portfolio-diversification benefits are not solely dependent on bad news…
Figure 4: Correlation of Spot Gold to Traditional Financial Assets During U.S. Economic Expansions & Contractions (1987-Present)
Source: World Gold Council
5. Gold Holds Its Own Against Alternatives
Recognizing there will always be outlying homeruns in the ultra-competitive partnership space, it is instructive to compare the performance of gold bullion directly against the performance of prominent indices of alternative-investment vehicles.
As documented in Figure 5, below, gold bullion has more than held its own against returns of high-profile alternative investment indices, both during the recent past (year-to-date 2017), as well as over the long run (2000-2016).
Figure 5: Average Annual Returns for Spot Gold Versus Selected Alternative Asset Indices (2000-2016 and 2017 YTD through September 30, 2017)
Source: World Gold Council
Even more challenging to industry status quo, gold bullion has rivaled the performance of alternative asset indices while simultaneously displaying far lower correlation to these vehicles than either stocks or bonds.
As shown in Figure 6, below, the correlation between prominent alternative asset indices and the S&P 500 Index has averaged 81% over the decade through September 30, 2017. By way of comparison, the 10-year correlation between these same indices and spot gold has averaged just 10%.
Figure 6: Correlations Between Alternative Asset Indices and S&P 500 Index, U.S. Treasuries and Spot Gold (Trailing 10-years Monthly Data through September 30, 2017)
Source: World Gold Council
At an 81% correlation rate with U.S. equities, are high-priced and unwieldy alternative vehicles worth their freight? What are we missing?
6. Choosing the Right Portfolio Allocation to Gold
Now a highly operative question might be, “Is there a reliable method for investors and institutions to right-size a portfolio commitment to gold?” Given the variables involved, there can never be a single, definitive solution to any portfolio-construction challenge. For a quick answer on the fly, we offer that a 2%–10% allocation can make sense in most portfolios but let’s dig deep and get a more technical answer.
In Figure 7, we present RE optimization outcomes for 5 different portfolios of traditional assets, each with unique risk tolerance assumptions. For example, the most conservative portfolio mandates a 20% weighting in stocks (and other assets) versus an 80% weighting for cash and bonds. The most aggressive portfolio mandates an 80% weighting in stocks versus a 20% weighting for cash and bonds. The 5 asset inputs utilized in this exercise are cash, stocks, bonds, commodities/REITs, and gold.
Figure 7: Optimal Gold Weightings in Basic Stock/Bond Portfolios at Five Risk Tolerance Levels
Source: Based on Michaud&Michaud RE Optimization; World Gold Council
RE optimization suggests a gold allocation between 2% & 9% will maximize risk-adjusted returns across the spectrum of risk tolerances. Broadly speaking, the higher the risk in the portfolio, whether in terms of volatility, illiquidity or concentration, the larger will be the modeled gold allocation to offset that risk.
It is one thing to establish that an allocation to gold can augment risk-adjusted returns among basic portfolio building blocks such as stocks and bonds. In the contemporary institutional world, however, so much brainpower and so many resources are directed at synthesizing complex investment strategies, it is difficult for participants to recognize that gold’s passive and seemingly anachronistic profile adds considerable value to modern portfolio dynamics. For example, despite the fact that institutions are laser-focused on non-correlating assets, we believe industry due diligence generally gravitates to alternative vehicles with the highest nominal returns in each product category. In the process, gold’s unrivaled powers of non-correlation are shortchanged.
It is gold’s lack of correlation to all other portfolio assets, as opposed strictly to bullion’s nominal return patterns, which empowers gold’s unique ability to protect against portfolio drawdowns. As we have long maintained, when paper assets perform as advertised, gold’s portfolio utility recedes to average profile. However, when paper ceases to perform as advertised, such as during stress tests like 2008, no alternative asset can match gold’s non-correlating, portfolio-protection power.
Summary: Gold Offers Attractive Protection and Improves Risk-Adjusted Returns
As precious-metal investors, we are familiar with the philosophical hurdles confronting gold in institutional circles. Gold is often perceived as a catastrophe asset, and a common line of reasoning suggests no endowment could weight gold sufficiently to insulate an investment corpus from actual catastrophe, so why introduce the distraction? Pension and endowment trustees routinely sidestep the precious-metal debate with the simple observation, “Gold is not what we do.” Finally, many investment advisors and consultants, especially in a late-stage equity bull market, fear a portfolio allocation to gold might be misinterpreted by clients as a signal that “something is wrong.”
On the other hand, to many investors, gold offers attractive protection from financial assets when their quoted prices are perceived as detached from intrinsic value, or, even more importantly, when the integrity of the unit of account in which these prices are quoted (fiat currencies) becomes increasingly suspect…
In this report, we have presented evidence that:
Given the unprecedented monetary, financial and asset-valuation risks now confronting investors, gold’s potent benefit of purchasing-power protection, which essentially accrues for free, seems to us an incredibly precious commodity.
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In the early part of the 1980s there were many seminal gold price studies that showed 5% to 10% of an investment portfolio could have been optimally allocated to gold from 1968 to 1980 to maximize a risk return allocation based on performance. Even today many high profile and alternative financial experts…say a 10% gold allocation makes sense but a closer look at the facts show that they may be a little understated in percentage terms. Let’s take a closer look as to why this may be the case.
The traditional view of portfolio management is that three asset classes, stocks, bonds and cash, are sufficient to achieve diversification. This view is, quite simply, wrong because over the past 10 years gold, silver and platinum have singularly outperformed virtually all major widely accepted investment indexes. Precious metals should be considered an independent asset class and an allocation to precious metals, as the most uncorrelated asset group, is essential for proper portfolio diversification.