In the Red Corner - Gold Bullion vs. Certified Coins

  on September 29 2011 1:18 PM

We gold bulls have been licking our wounds over the last few weeks. This summer’s intense upward price movement set the stage for major volatility on the precious metals markets, and long term gold investors are stuck riding out the storm, at least for the moment. Yesterday however, something was brought to my attention by someone out on our trading floor. One of his clients who bought a diversified investment grade coin position early in the month was actually dead even on his overall position. While gold had tumbled by over $300 per ounce, his coins had stayed right where they were showing him no loss whatsoever. Needless to say, this needs a bit of explaining.

Let’s take a look at gold’s correction versus the price movement in a variety of $20 Liberty certified coins. Gold closed at $1895 on September 6th. Over the course of the next 20 calendar days, it shed $297 to close at $1598 on September 26th. That is an overall correction of 18.58% in 14 trading days. The certified $20 Liberty coins fared much better. See the chart below for the comparison.

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The major difference between raw gold bullion and certified coins is the premium (which is often significant) that the coins carry over the spot price of gold. For example, the $20 Liberty in Mint State 66 condition is a coin that sells for well above $15,000. Most investors look at that and wonder why in the world anyone would buy a one ounce coin for over 15 grand! Yet this month, the one who did would be laughing all the way to the bank while the rest of us dream longingly of weeks gone by and $1900 per ounce.

Now this is not to say we should all rush out and dump all our bullion in favor of certified coins. That said, there is clearly an advantage to be gained by owning some of these products that help insulate investors from these volatile markets. The real question is what causes certified coin premiums to change, and what place do these products have in a healthy and diversified gold portfolio.

The debate over whether to buy bullion or certified coins (also referred to as numismatics) has been raging for decades and will probably continue to produce spirited cocktail hour conversation for a long time to come. Some people swear by investment grade numismatics, while others think only a fool would buy anything other than bullion. So who’s right? Both of course. As with most arguments like this, there is a lot of truth to both sides, and each strategy has significant advantages and disadvantages.

On the bullion side, the main argument against certified coins is that they are too expensive. Why pay $3000 per ounce or more for a gold coin when you could buy a Gold Eagle or a bar for $1800? The premium, as well as the dealer’s bid/ask spread is much higher on certified coins as they are more difficult to source and procure. The other argument against them is they tend to move more slowly than bullion coins. For investors who need instant liquidity, or are trying to pop in and out of the markets with some frequency, certified coins present some major drawbacks.

In contrast, numismatists (people who study coins) never forget one simple fact: value comes from scarcity. If you purchase a gold bar this year and sell it in 2015, there will have been millions upon millions more produced and sold between now and then. If you purchase a certified $20 Liberty, you can sleep well at night knowing that never again will a single $20 Liberty coin be produced. It’s hardly even a question of supply and demand, because there really is no supply. Thus when you look at the $20 Liberty MS66 in the graph above, you see it actually increase in value during gold’s worst month in 20 + years. The premiums on certified coins can move quite independently from the gold market and often times increase when gold goes down. This provides strong buoyancy during gold market corrections; something a lot of gold buyers would have loved over the last few weeks.

All in all, there is no real “right” answer as to whether investors are better off with bullion or certified coins. As such, we’re strong believers in owning both. Ideally, a healthy gold portfolio would have both bullion and certified coins. The bullion will move more quickly, provide more gold per dollar invested, and can be bought and sold at lower margins. The certified coins may have higher long term profit potential, benefit from strong demand and scarcity, and can provide stability in a gold market that is likely to become increasingly volatile in the coming years. As with most arguments, the best answer probably borrows a bit from both sides. As with most investments, the best strategy is probably a diversified one.

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