ETF Monthly commentary

Gold ETFs had net outflows of US$9bn in 2021 led by North American funds

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2021 highlights

Physically backed gold ETFs1 saw global outflows of 173 tonnes (t) (-US$9.1bn, -4.0% AUM) in 2021. Collective gold holdings were down 5% to 3,570t for the year, while assets under management (AUM) in value terms dropped 9% to US$209bn as net outflows were compounded by a 4% contraction in the gold price.2 Despite considerable outflows for the year, gold ETF holdings remain significantly above pre-pandemic levels, as they posted record inflows of approximately 875t (US$48bn) during 2020. 

Losses in 2021 were driven by North American funds, which never recovered from their significant outflows in Q1, ultimately registering outflows of nearly US$11bn (-200t) by year-end. The bulk of these outflows were from large US funds whose assets fluctuated in tandem with the gold price. Conversely, European ETFs turned positive in the second half of 2021 amid rising inflation expectations, ending the year with marginal gains of US$264mn (0.7t). 

Asian ETFs accounted for the vast majority of inflows among global funds, despite some weakness in Q2, adding close to US$1.5bn (20%) over the year. This especially rang true for Chinese-based funds, which made up more than 60% of total inflows for the region, driven by concerns over slowing economic growth and lower yield expectations as well as local investors taking advantage of a lower gold price. Finally, low-cost ETFs3 attracted consistent inflows regardless of the direction of gold prices, increasing by 45% (63t, US$3.7bn). These funds now constitute in sum almost 6% of the global gold ETF market.

 

ETF flows chart

Data as of

Sources: Bloomberg, Company Filings, ICE Benchmark Administration, World Gold Council; Disclaimer

 

December highlights

Gold ETFs experienced net outflows of 6.4t (-US$340mn) in December, consistent with monthly outflows during much of H2 2021. North American outflows of 22t (-US$1.2bn) outweighed inflows into Europe and Asia, which gained a combined 16t (US$942mn) during the month. Other regions saw negative flows for the first time since August, losing US$68mn (-1.2t).4

North American outflows once again stemmed from larger US funds, likely triggered by the US Federal Reserve (Fed) indicating its intent for multiple interest rate hikes in 2022 to combat decades-high inflation, while planning to scale back asset purchases early in the year. On the other hand, inflows into Europe continued despite the Bank of England’s decision to raise interest rates. Demand was also supported by a flight-to-quality as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 sparked renewed lockdowns. Inflows into Asian ETFs were primarily due to tactical buying in China after the local gold price fell in late November and early December.

Price performance and trading volumes 2021

Gold finished the year around 4% lower at US$1,806/oz.5 The gold price rallied into year-end on the heels of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, likely prompting flight-to-quality flows, but it was not enough to offset losses from early 2021. After H1 – when it dropped by more than 10% – gold was rangebound between US$1,700/oz and US$1,850/oz for much of the year. This was also reflected in gold’s realised volatility, which remained largely below its longer-term average of 16% after gold’s initial selloff during Q1. 

Net long positioning, via the recent Commitment of Traders (COT) report for COMEX gold futures, oscillated alongside the gold price, falling to below 500t (US$27bn)  in late March and rallying close to 900t (US$52bn) in mid-November as prices rose again. By the end of 2021 it had settled above 670t (US$41bn), markedly higher than its historical weekly average of around 500t (US$31bn).7

Our gold return attribution model suggests that gold’s performance in 2021 was driven, to an extent, by offsetting forces. 

Gold faced headwinds from:

  • higher bond yields, especially during Q1
  • a stronger dollar – particularly in H2 2021 – relative to other developed market currencies.

Conversely, gold was supported by:

  • concerns that inflation surprises would not be transitory
  • market volatility linked to continued COVID variants and varying lockdown measures.

2022 outlook

Looking ahead, we believe gold will experience similar dynamics in 2022. The persistence of high inflation is still likely due to knock-on effects from COVID-induced monetary and fiscal policies, supply-chain disruptions, and a tight labour market. This, combined with high equity market valuations, potential new COVID variants, and a growing appetite for less liquid assets, could well result in more frequent market pullbacks and increased demand for gold as a portfolio hedge. Gold may also find continued support from consumer demand and central bank purchases, both of which continue to be important long-term drivers of performance. 

On the contrary, gold may also face challenges if interest rates rise quicker than currently anticipated. In our view, however, despite potential rate hikes both nominal and real interest rates will remain low from a historical perspective. This, in turn, will continue to drive structural changes in the composition of investment portfolios and likely increase the need for a high-quality liquid asset such as gold.

Look out for our Gold Outlook 2022 which will be published during the second week of January.

Regional flows8

Outflows from North America in 2021 outweighed inflows from Asia and, to a lesser extent, Europe

  • North American funds had outflows of 199.5t (-US$10.9bn, -8.9%)
  • European funds had inflows of 0.7t (US$264mn, 0.3%)
  • Funds listed in Asia had inflows of 25.4t (US$1.5bn, 20.4%)
  • Other regions had marginal inflows of 0.1t (US$17mn, 0.5%).

Individual flows

SPDR® Gold Shares and iShares Gold Trust in the US and WisdomTree Physical Gold in the UK drove global outflows in 2021, partially offset by inflows into Xtrackers IE Physical Gold and Xetra Gold in Germany 

  • In North America, SPDR® Gold Shares had outflows of 195t (-US$10.7bn, -15.1%), while iShares Gold Trust lost 32.9t (-US$1.8bn, -5.6%)
  • In Europe, low-cost Xtrackers IE Physical Gold had inflows of 33.6t (US$1.9bn), while Xetra Gold added 20.7t (US$1.2bn, 9.1%); on the other hand, WisdomTree Physical Gold had outflows of 25.2t (-US$1.4bn, -19.5%)
  • In Asia, Chinese ETFs Huaan Yifu Gold had inflows of 5.9t (US$317mn, 20.2%), while Bosera Gold Exchange gained 5.4t (US$284mn, 24.8%)
  • Low-cost ETFs overall had sizable inflows of 63.0t (US$3.7bn, 45%).

Footnotes

  1. The data on this page tracks gold held in physical form by open-ended ETFs and other products such as close-end funds, and mutual funds which we collectively refer to as gold ETFs. Barring a few exceptions, these funds are fully backed by physical gold. While a few funds allow other holdings such as cash or derivatives, we only monitor those investing at least 90% through physical gold and appropriately adjust their reported assets to estimate their physical holdings only. We periodically review the global gold-backed ETF universe and adjust the list of funds and holdings based on newly available data and information.

  2. Based on the LBMA Gold Price PM as of 30 December 2021. It should be noted that while a closing price for the LBMA Gold Price PM is not available for 31 December, gold rallied that day. Based on XAU – a commonly used proxy for spot gold price – gold finished slightly higher and up 3% in December.

  3. Low-cost US-based gold-backed ETFs are defined by the World Gold Council as exchange-traded open-ended funds listed in the US and Europe, backed by physical gold, with annual management fees and other expenses like FX costs of 20bps or less. At present, these include Aberdeen Physical Swiss Gold Shares, SPDR® Gold MiniShares, Graniteshares Gold Trust, Goldman Sachs Physical Gold ETF, iShares Gold Trust Micro, CI Gold Bullion Fund, WisdomTree Core Physical Gold, and Xtrackers IE Physical Gold ETC.

  4. ‘Other’ regions include Australia, South Africa, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

  5. Based on the LBMA Gold Price PM as of 30 December 2021. It should be noted that while a closing price for the LBMA Gold Price PM is not available for 31 December, gold rallied that day. Based on XAU – a commonly used proxy for spot gold price – gold finished slightly higher and up 3% in December

  6. Based on the LBMA Gold Price PM as of 31 March 2021

  7. From 4 December 2012 to 28 December 2021, based on available data.

  8. We calculate gold-backed ETF flows both in ounces/tonnes of gold and in US dollars because these two metrics are relevant in understanding funds’ performance. The change in tonnes gives a direct measure of how holdings evolve, while the dollar value of flows is a finance-industry standard that gives a perspective on how much investment reaches the funds. We have made a few adjustments and improvements to our calculation methodology as of 1 July 2021 that will impact historical and future data. Specifically, we revised the methodology used to estimate changes in gold holdings as described below:

    • Previously, changes in tonnes were calculated by converting a fund’s AUM (in USD) into gold holdings (in tonnes) and computing the difference over periods. However, currency movements and large daily and weekly gold price movements could distort the difference between tonnage change and US-dollar fund flows during short time horizons. We therefore adjusted tonnage change as a function of fund flows versus AUM and replaced the tonnage change field with fund flows (tonnes).
    • Now, for most funds, we estimate US-dollar fund flows, as described in section 2.3.2 below, and then convert those flows to fund flows (tonnes). 
    • Fund flows (tonnes) and US-dollar fund flows will now represent a more aligned explanation of investment demand for gold ETFs, while the true holdings of a fund, in US dollars and tonnage, will remain a close estimate, impacted by the currency and price volatility described above.
    • Based on our initial analysis, the changes are not likely to have a material long-term effect on historical information, particularly on a global or regional aggregate basis, but will adjust short-term fluctuations that can sometimes occur due to input data and timing variations.

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