What makes precious metals funds so attractive is that they offer investors the ability to gain unleveraged exposure to gold and other precious metals without taking delivery of physical metal or trading futures contracts. Shares in these trusts offer a convenient and economical way to own a fractional interest in gold or silver bars held by a reputable custodian. The trust is passively managed, so expenses are low–usually about 0.4%–and the shares tend to track the underlying asset’s price (minus expenses) very closely. Importantly for some investors, the gold held in these trusts is allocated: a list of gold bars, their serial numbers, and in some cases, even pictures of the bars, are made available to investors.
Assets held by the SPDR Gold Trust soared from $1 billion initially to almost $35 billion at the end of September 2009, making it the third-largest ETF by assets held in the United States. At least two similar funds, the iShares COMEX Gold Trust (IAU) with about $2.4 billion in assets, and the recently listed ETFS Physical Swiss Gold Shares (SGOL) with less than $100 million in assets, were launched to compete.
Along with gold, there are two funds that own silver bullion, the iShares Silver Trust (SLV), with about $4.5 billion in assets, and the ETFS Physical Silver Shares (SIVR), with about $100 million in assets. Both are structured in the same way as the gold trusts, and have similar expense ratios.
Several other precious metals funds either own futures contracts or are structured as exchange-traded notes. PowerShares offers the DB Gold Fund (DGL) with assets of $157 million, the DB Silver Fund (DBS) with about $70 million in assets, and the DB Precious Metals Fund (DBP), which owns 80% gold and 20% silver and has about $180 million in assets. These funds simply own the actively traded futures contracts to buy gold or silver. (Capital not needed as collateral for the futures contracts is invested in three-month Treasury bills.)