United Kingdom edition

What makes gold a strategic asset?

Gold benefits from diverse sources of demand: as an investment, a reserve asset, a luxury good and a technology component. It is highly liquid, no one’s liability, carries no credit risk, and is scarce, historically preserving its value over time. 

Gold can enhance a portfolio in four key ways:

  • generate long-term returns (Chart 2)
  • act as a diversifier and mitigate losses in times of market stress (Chart 5)
  • provide liquidity with no credit risk (Chart 6)
  • improve overall portfolio performance. (Chart 7)

New decade, renewed challenges

As the new decade begins, investors face an expanding list of challenges around asset management and portfolio construction.2 Among these:

  • Low interest rates, which may push investors to seek riskier assets at elevated valuation levels and, for UK pension funds in particular, may increase the value of liabilities, possibly reducing their funding ratio
  • Continued financial market uncertainty ranging from geopolitical tensions, to expectations of diverging global economic growth and an increase in asset volatility.

We believe that gold is not only a useful long-term strategic component for portfolios, but one that is increasingly relevant in the current environment  
(see 2020 Gold Outlook). 

The increased relevance of gold

Institutional investors have embraced alternatives to traditional stocks and bonds in pursuit of diversification and higher risk-adjusted returns. The share of non-traditional assets among global pension funds increased from 7% in 1998 to 26% in 20183 (Chart 1).

Gold allocations have been recipients of this shift. It is increasingly recognised as a mainstream investment as global investment demand has grown by an average of 14% per year since 2001 and the gold price has increased by almost six-fold over the same period.4

Chart 1: Investors continue to add alternative investments, including gold, to their portfolios

Chart 1: Investors continue to add alternative investments, including gold, to their portfolios

Sources: World Gold Council, Willis Towers Watson; Disclaimer

 

The principal factors behind this growth include:

  • Emerging market growth: economic expansion –particularly in China and India – increased and diversified gold’s consumer and investor base (see Chart 14, and Chart 25 in the full report)
  • Market access: the launch of gold-backed ETFs in 2003 facilitated access to the gold market and materially bolstered interest in gold as a strategic investment, reduced total cost of ownership and increased efficiencies (see Chart 15 in the full report)
  • Market risk: the global financial crisis prompted a renewed focus on effective risk management and an appreciation of uncorrelated, highly liquid assets such as gold (see Chart 17 in the full report). Today, trade tensions, the growth of populist politics and concerns about the economic and political outlook have encouraged investors to reexamine gold as a traditional hedge in times of turmoil (see Chart 26, and Chart 27 in the full report)
  • Monetary policy: persistently low interest rates reduce the opportunity cost of holding gold and highlight its attributes as a source of genuine, long-term returns, particularly when compared to historically high levels of global negative-yielding debt (see Chart 24 and Table 2 in the full report)
  • Central bank demand: a surge of interest in gold among central banks across the world, commonly used in foreign reserves for safety and diversification, has encouraged other investors to consider gold’s positive investment attributes (see Chart 16 in the full report).

Gold’s strategic role

Gold is a clear complement to stocks, bonds and broad-based portfolios. A store of wealth and, a hedge against systemic risk, currency depreciation and inflation, gold has historically improved portfolios’ risk-adjusted returns, delivered positive returns, and provided liquidity to meet liabilities in times of market stress. 

1. A source of returns

Gold is long considered a beneficial asset during periods of uncertainty. Historically, it generated long-term positive returns in both good times and bad. Looking back almost half a century, the price of gold has increased by an average of nearly 12% per year in pound sterling since 1971 when the gold standard collapsed.5 Over this period, gold's long-term return was comparable to stocks and higher than bonds.6 Gold has also outperformed other major asset classes over the past two decades. (Chart 2 and Chart 18 in the full report).

Gold is used to protect and enhance wealth over the long-term and it operates as a means of exchange, because it has global recognition and is no one’s liability. Gold is also in demand as a luxury good, valued by consumers across the world. And it is a key component in electronics.7 These diverse sources of demand give gold a particular resilience: a dual-nature with the potential to deliver solid returns in good times and in bad (Focus 1).

Chart 2: Gold has delivered positive returns over the long run, outperforming key asset classes

Chart 2: Gold has delivered positive returns over the long run, outperforming key asset classes

Avg. annual return of key global assets in pound sterling*

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

* As of 31 December 2019. Computations in pound sterling of total return indices for Barclays GBP Cash Index, Barclays Gilts Index, FTSE 100 Index,
FTSE All-World ex UK and MSCI Emerging Market indices, Bloomberg Commodity Index and spot for LBMA Gold Price PM. For compounded annual
growth rates see Appendix Chart 18.

 

Beating inflation, combating deflation

Gold is long considered a hedge against inflation and the data confirms this. The average annual return of 12% over the past 49 years, has outpaced the UK consumer price index (CPI). 

Gold also protects investors against extreme inflation. In years when inflation was higher than 3% gold’s price increased 13% on average (Chart 3). Over the long-term, therefore, gold has not just preserved capital but helped  it grow. 

Notably too, research by Oxford Economics shows that gold should do well in periods of deflation.9 Such periods are characterised by low interest rates, reduced consumption and investment, and financial stress, all of which tend to foster demand for gold.

Chart 3: Gold has historically rallied in periods of high inflation

Chart 3: Gold has historically rallied in periods of high inflation

Gold returns in pound sterling as a function of annual inflation*

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

*Based on y-o-y changes of the LBMA Gold Price and UK CPI between 1971 and 2019.

**For each year on the sample, real return = (1+nominal return)/(1+inflation)-1.

 

Outperforming fiat currencies

Investor demand has been boosted by persistently low interest rates and concerns about the outlook for the dollar, as these factors affect the perceived opportunity cost of holding gold.

Historically, major currencies were pegged to gold. That changed with the collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971. Since then, gold has significantly outperformed all major currencies as a means of exchange  (Chart 4). This outperformance was particularly marked immediately after the end of the Gold Standard and, subsequently, when major economies defaulted. A key factor behind this robust performance is that the supply growth of gold has changed little over time – increasing by approximately 1.6% per year over the past 20 years.10 By contrast, fiat money can be printed in unlimited quantities to support monetary policy, as exemplified by the Quantitative Easing (QE) measures in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Chart 4: Gold has outperformed all major fiat currencies over time

Chart 4: Gold has outperformed all major fiat currencies over time

Relative value between major currencies and gold since 1900*

Sources: Harold Marcuse – UC Santa Barbara, World Gold Council; Disclaimer

*As of 31 December 2019. Based on the annual average price of a currency relative to the gold price.

**The ‘Mark’ was the currency of the late German Empire. It was originally known as the Goldmark and backed by gold until 1914. It was known as the Papermark thereafter.

 

2. Diversification that works

The benefits of diversification are widely acknowledged – but effective diversifiers are hard to find. Many assets are increasingly correlated as market uncertainty rises and volatility is more pronounced, driven in part by risk-on/risk-off investment decisions. As a result, many so-called diversifiers fail to protect portfolios when investors need them most. 

Gold is different, in that its negative correlation to stocks and other risk assets increases as these assets sell off (Download the full report to see Chart 27). The 2008-2009 financial crisis is a case in point. Stocks and other risk assets tumbled in value, as did hedge funds, real estate and most commodities, which were long deemed portfolio diversifiers. Gold, by contrast, held its own and increased in price, rising 37% in pound sterling from December 2008 to December 2009.11

This robust performance is perhaps not surprising.

Gold has consistently benefited from “flight-to-quality” inflows during periods of heightened risk. It is particularly effective during times of systemic risk, delivering  positive returns and reducing overall portfolio losses (Download the full report to see Chart 26) Importantly too, gold allows investors to meet liabilities when less liquid assets in their portfolio are difficult to sell, undervalued and possibly mispriced.12,13

But gold’s correlation does not just work for investors during periods of turmoil. It can also deliver positive correlation with stocks and other risk assets in positive markets.

This dual benefit arises from gold’s dual nature: as an investment and a luxury good. As such, the long-term price of gold is supported by income growth. Our analysis bears this out, showing that when stocks rally strongly, their correlation to gold can increase  (Chart 5), likely driven by a wealth-effect supporting gold consumer demand as well as demand from investors seeking protection against higher inflation expectations.

Chart 5: Gold’s correlation with stocks helps portfolio diversification in good and bad economic times

Chart 5: Gold’s correlation with stocks helps portfolio diversification in good and bad economic times

Correlation between gold and UK stock returns in various environments of stocks’ performance*

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

*As of 31 December 2019. Correlations computed using weekly returns in pound sterling based on the Bloomberg Commodity Index and the LBMA Gold Price PM since January 1990.

The middle bar corresponds to the correlation conditional on FTSE 100 weekly return falling or rising by less than two standard deviations (or ‘s’), respectively. The bottom bar corresponds to the correlation conditional on FTSE 100 weekly return falling by more than two standard deviations (or ‘s’) respectively, while the top bar corresponds to the FTSE 100 weekly return increasing by more than two standard deviations. The standard deviation is based on the same weekly returns over the full period.

 

3. A deep and liquid market

The gold market is large, global and highly liquid. 

We estimate that physical gold holdings by investors and central banks are worth approximately £2.7 trillion (trn), with an additional £700 billion (bn) in open interest  through derivatives traded on exchanges or the over-the-counter market.14

The gold market is also more liquid than several major financial markets, including German Bunds and European stock markets, while trading volumes are similar to the US short-dated Treasuries (Chart 6). Gold’s trading volumes averaged £115bn per day in 2019. During that period, over-the-counter spot and derivatives contracts accounted for £61bn and gold futures traded £51bn per day across various global exchanges. Gold-backed ETFs offer an additional source of liquidity, with the largest US-listed funds trading an average of £1.5bn per day.

The scale and depth of the market mean that it can comfortably accommodate large, buy-and-hold institutional investors. In stark contrast to many financial markets, gold’s liquidity does not dry up, even at times of acute financial stress. 

Chart 6: Gold trades more than many other major financial assets

Chart 6: Gold trades more than many other major financial assets

Average daily trading volumes in pound sterling*

Sources: Bloomberg, Bank for International Settlements, UK Debt Management Office (DMO), Germany Finance Agency, Japan Securities Dealers Association, London Bullion Market Association, World Gold Council; Disclaimer

*Based on estimated one-year average trading volumes in pound sterling as of 31 December 2019, except for currencies that correspond to March 2019 volumes due to data availability.

**Gold liquidity includes estimates on over-the-counter (OTC) transactions and published statistics on futures exchanges, and gold-backed exchange-traded products. For methodology details visit the liquidity section at Goldhub.com.

 

4. Enhanced portfolio performance

Long-term returns, liquidity and effective diversification all benefit overall portfolio performance. In combination, they suggest that a portfolio’s risk-adjusted returns can be materially enhanced through the addition of gold. 

Our analysis of investment performance over the past five, 10- and 20-years underlines gold’s positive impact on an institutional portfolio. It shows that the average UK pension fund would have achieved higher risk-adjusted returns if 2.5%, 7.5% or 12.5% of the portfolio were allocated to gold. (Chart 7) and (Table 1). The positive impact has been particularly marked since the global financial crisis.

Looking to the future, stronger dynamics apply. Our analysis shows that pound sterling-based investors can benefit from a material enhancement in performance if they allocate between 2.5% and 12.5% of a well-diversified portfolio to gold (Chart 8a).15

The amount of gold varies according to individual asset allocation decisions. Broadly speaking however, the higher the risk in the portfolio – whether in terms of volatility, illiquidity or concentration of assets – the larger the required allocation to gold, within the range in consideration, to offset that risk (Chart 8b).

Our analysis indicates that gold’s optimal weight in hypothetical portfolios is statistically significant even if investors assume an annual return for gold of between 2% and 4% – well below its actual long-term historical performance.

This works equally for investors who already hold other inflation-hedging assets, such as inflation-linked bonds,16 and for investors who hold alternative assets, such as real estate, private equity and hedge funds.17

Chart 7: Adding gold over the past decade would have increased risk-adjusted returns of a hypothetical average pension fund portfolio

Chart 7: Adding gold over the past decade would have increased risk-adjusted returns of a hypothetical average pension fund portfolio

Performance of a hypothetical average pension fund (PF) portfolio with and without gold*

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

*Based on performance in pound sterling between 31 December 1999 and 31 December 2019. The hypothetical average UK pension fund portfolio is based on Willis Tower Watson Global Pension Assets Study 2019 and Global Alternatives Survey 2017. It includes quarterly-rebalanced total returns of a 30% allocation to stocks (8% FTSE 100 Index, 22% FTSE All-World ex UK), 49% allocation to fixed income (13% Barclays YK Govt Inflation-Linked All Maturities Index, 11% Barclays Sterling Gilts Index, 10% S&P UK Investment Grade Corporates Index, 10% Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Bonds, 3% Barclays EM Bond Index, 2% Barclays Overnight GBP Index), and 21% alternative assets (8% HFRI Hedge Fund Index, 7% FTSE EPRA Nareit Developed Europe Index, 6% LPX Europe Listed Private Equity Index) The allocation to gold comes from proportionally reducing all assets. Risk-adjusted returns are calculated as the annualised return/annualised volatility. See important disclaimers and disclosures at the end of this report.

 

Table 1: Gold increases risk-adjusted returns by reducing portfolio volatility and drawdowns across various time horizons

Comparison of average pension portfolio versus similar portfolio with 5% gold over the past two, five, ten and twenty years*

  20-year 10-year 5-year 1-year
  No gold 5% gold No gold 5% gold No gold 5% gold No gold 5% gold
Annualised return 6.4% 6.7% 8.0% 8.0% 7.7% 7.8% 5.0% 5.2%
Annualised volatility 7.3% 7.2% 6.0% 6.1% 6.0% 6.1% 5.1% 5.0%
Risk-adjusted returns 87.6% 92.6% 132.6% 131.2% 129.5% 128.4% 97.7% 105.3%
Maximum drawdown -19.2% -16.2% -6.0% -5.2% -4.8% -4.5% -4.8% -4.2%

*Based on performance in pound sterling between 31 December 1999 and 31 December 2019. The average PF portfolio is based on Willis Tower Watson Global Pension Assets Study 2019 and Global Alternatives Survey 2017 and as described on (Chart 7).

Source: Bloomberg, ICE Benchmark Administration, World Gold Council

Chart 8a: Gold can significantly improve risk-adjusted returns of hypothetical portfolios across various levels of risk

Chart 8a: Gold can significantly improve risk-adjusted returns of hypothetical portfolios across various levels of risk

(a) Long-run optimal allocations based on asset mix*

Sources: World Gold Council; Disclaimer

*Based on monthly total returns from December 1999 to December 2019. The hypothetical average UK pension fund portfolio is based on Willis Tower Watson Global Pension Assets Study 2019 and Global Alternatives Survey 2017. Each hypothetical portfolio composition reflects a percentage in stock (Eqty), alternative assets (Alts), cash and bonds (FI). For example: the average pension allocation includes quarterly-rebalanced total returns of a 30% allocation to stocks (8% FTSE 100 Index, 22% FTSE All-World ex UK), 49% allocation to fixed income (13% Barclays UK Govt Inflation-Linked All Maturities Index, 11% Barclays Sterling Gilts Index, 10% S&P UK Investment Grade Corporates Index, 10% Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Bonds, 3% Barclays EM Bond Index, 2% Barclays Overnight GBP Index), and 21% alternative assets (8% HFRI Hedge Fund Index, 7% FTSE EPRA Nareit Developed Europe Index, 6% LPX Europe Listed Private Equity Index) The allocation to gold comes from proportionally reducing all assets. The optimal gold allocation is added to the ‘Alts’ bucket. Risk-adjusted returns are calculated as the annualised return/annualised volatility.

Analysis based on New Frontier Advisors Resampled Efficiency. For more information see Efficient Asset Management: A Practical Guide to Stock Portfolio Optimization and Asset Allocation, Oxford University Press, January 2008.

Chart 8b: Gold can significantly improve risk-adjusted returns of hypothetical portfolios across various levels of risk

Chart 8b: Gold can significantly improve risk-adjusted returns of hypothetical portfolios across various levels of risk

(b) Range of gold allocations and the allocation that delivers the maximum risk-adjusted return for each hypothetical portfolio mix*

Sources: World Gold Council; Disclaimer

*Based on monthly total returns from December 1999 to December 2019. The hypothetical average UK pension fund portfolio is based on Willis Tower Watson Global Pension Assets Study 2019 and Global Alternatives Survey 2017. Each hypothetical portfolio composition reflects a percentage in stock (Eqty), alternative assets (Alts), cash and bonds (FI). For example: the average pension allocation includes quarterly-rebalanced total returns of a 30% allocation to stocks (8% FTSE 100 Index, 22% FTSE All-World ex UK), 49% allocation to fixed income (13% Barclays UK Govt Inflation-Linked All Maturities Index, 11% Barclays Sterling Gilts Index, 10% S&P UK Investment Grade Corporates Index, 10% Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Bonds, 3% Barclays EM Bond Index, 2% Barclays Overnight GBP Index), and 21% alternative assets (8% HFRI Hedge Fund Index, 7% FTSE EPRA Nareit Developed Europe Index, 6% LPX Europe Listed Private Equity Index) The allocation to gold comes from proportionally reducing all assets. The optimal gold allocation is added to the ‘Alts’ bucket. Risk-adjusted returns are calculated as the annualised return/annualised volatility.

Analysis based on New Frontier Advisors Resampled Efficiency. For more information see Efficient Asset Management: A Practical Guide to Stock Portfolio Optimization and Asset Allocation, Oxford University Press, January 2008.

Chart 9: Gold has outperformed all broad-based indices and all individual commodities

Chart 9: Gold has outperformed all broad-based indices and all individual commodities

20-year commodity and commodity index returns

Sources: Bloomberg, World Gold Council; Disclaimer

Annualised returns in pound sterling from December 1999 to December 2019. Indices include: S&P GS Energy Index, S&P GS Precious Metals Index, S&P GS Industrial Metals Index, S&P GS Non-Precious Metals Index, Gold (£/oz) London PM fix.

 

Conclusion

Perceptions of gold have changed substantially over the past two decades, reflecting increased wealth in the East and a growing appreciation of gold’s role within an institutional investment portfolio worldwide. 

Gold’s unique attributes as a scarce, highly liquid and un-correlated asset highlight that it can act as a genuine diversifier over the long term. 

Gold’s position as an investment and a luxury good has allowed it to deliver average returns of approximately 12% over nearly the past 50 years, comparable to stocks and more than bonds and commodities. (see Chart 2).

Gold’s traditional role as a safe-haven asset means it comes into its own during times of high risk. But gold’s dual appeal as an investment and a consumer good means it can generate positive returns in good times too.

This dynamic is likely to persist, reflecting persistent political and economic uncertainty, persistently low interest rates and economic concerns surrounding stock and bond markets (see 2020 Gold Outlook).

Overall, extensive analysis suggests that adding between 2.5% and 12.5% of gold to a pound sterling-based portfolio will make a tangible improvement to performance and boost risk-adjusted returns on a sustainable, long-term basis. (see Chart 7).

Footnotes

1See (Chart 7) for more details behind the composition of the hypothetical average US pension fund portfolio. In addition, refer to important disclaimers and disclosures at the end of this report.

2See 2020 Gold Outlook, January 2020.

3Willis Towers Watson, Global Pension Assets Study 2018, February 2019 and Global Alternatives Survey 2017, July 2017. https://www.willistowerswatson.com/en-US/insights/2017/07/Global-Alternatives-Survey-2017

4As of 31 December 2019

5During the gold standard, the US dollar was backed by gold and the foreign currency exchange rates were dictated by the Bretton Woods System: https://www.imf.org/external/about/histend.htm.

6For other return metrics and y-o-y performance download the full report to see Appendix.

7Download the full report to see Chart 12 on page 11.

8Qaurum is a web-based quantitative tool that helps investors intuitively understand the drivers of gold’s performance that can be explained by four broad sets of drivers.

9Oxford Economics, The impact of inflation and deflation on the case for gold, July 2011.

10See the demand and supply section at Goldhub.com.

11Based on the LBMA PM gold price fix from 1 December 2008 to 30 November 2009.

12Download the full report to see Chart 26 in Appendix.

13Download the full report to see also Chart 27 in Appendix.

14Download the full report to see Chart 11 and Figure 1 in Appendix as well as the holders and trends section at Goldhub.com.

15Analysis based on the re-sampled efficiency methodology developed by Richard and Robert Michaud and praised as a robust alternative to traditional mean-variance optimisation. See Efficient Asset Management: A Practical Guide to Stock Portfolio Optimization and Asset Allocation, Oxford University Press, January 2008.

16Gold as a tactical inflation hedge and long-term strategic asset, July 2009.

17How gold improves alternative asset performance, Gold Investor, Volume 6, June 2014.

18See: Gold: the most effective commodity investment, September 2019, and Gold: metal by design, currency by nature, Gold Investor, Volume 6, June 2014.

Important disclaimers and disclosures

© 2020 World Gold Council. All rights reserved. World Gold Council and the Circle device are trademarks of the World Gold Council or its affiliates.
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Neither the World Gold Council nor any of its affiliates (collectively, “WGC”) guarantees the accuracy or completeness of any information. WGC does not accept responsibility for any losses or damages arising directly or indirectly from the use of this information.

This information is for educational purposes only. Nothing contained herein is intended to constitute a recommendation, investment advice, or offer for the purchase or sale of gold, any gold-related products or services or any other products, services, securities or financial instruments (collectively, “Services”). This information does not take into account any investment objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any particular person.    

By receiving this information, you agree with the intended purpose of this information as being for educational purposes only.  Diversification does not guarantee any investment returns and does not eliminate the risk of loss.    

Investors should discuss their individual circumstances with their appropriate investment professionals before making any decision regarding any Services or investments.

This information contains forward-looking statements, such as statements which use the words “believes”, “expects”, “may”, or “suggests”, or similar terminology, which are based on current expectations and are subject to change. Forward-looking statements involve a number of risks and uncertainties. There can be no assurance that any forward-looking statements will be achieved. WGC assumes no responsibility for updating any forward-looking statements.

Information regarding QaurumSM and the Gold Valuation Framework 

Note that the resulting performance of various investment outcomes that can generated through use of Qaurum, the Gold Valuation Framework and other information are hypothetical in nature, may not reflect actual investment results and are not guarantees of future results. Diversification does not guarantee investment returns and does not eliminate the risk of loss.  World Gold Council and its affiliates and subsidiaries (collectively, “WGC”) provide no warranty or guarantee regarding the functionality of the tool, including without limitation any projections, estimates or calculations.