Silver Mutual Funds are one of the numerous ways to invest in precious metals these days. Bullion and rare coins have always been investment options, and they’re still good ones. Gold and silver certificates and privately minted coins are some other choices. And there are also mutual funds that can offer you exposure to the precious-metals sector.
There are about thirty mutual funds which invest in both gold and silver. But as you will see, the investment styles and strategies of these funds vary greatly. Some invest primarily in mining stocks, while others hold bullion or coins. Still others offer a balanced approach. And finally, there are the exchange-traded index funds tied directly to the bullion price of silver and gold. One thing is for sure—it’s never been easier to invest in precious metals.
Two of the Best Precious-Metals Funds
Two of the best precious-metals mutual funds are Vanguard Precious Metals and Mining (ticker: VGPMX) and Permanent Portfolio (PRPFX). Both of these funds received five-star ratings from Morningstar, and yet they are quite different.
The Vanguard Fund is heavily stock-based mutual fund. As of July 31, 2007, 97% of its $4 billion in assets were invested in equities, with its largest holdings Lonmin (LMI), Impala Platinum (IMPUY), Anglo Platinum (AGPPY), and Aber Diamond Corporation (ABZ). All four of these stocks are foreign and can only be purchased by U.S. investors through ADRs—buying the fund is much easier.
As of July 31, 2007, Vanguard Precious Metals and Mining had a one-year annualized return of 22.29%. Its three-year return was even better, at 39.88%. And its five-year return was 34.01%. An investment of $10,000 five years ago would be worth $43,220 today.
Another amazing feature about the Vanguard Fund is its incredible Sharpe Ratio of 1.41 (five-year return over risk). In fact, based on the fund’s three-year, five-year, and ten-year data, Morningstar assigned it a return designation of “high,” and a risk designation of “low.”
Permanent Portfolio (PRPFX) didn’t fare quite as well. Its three-year, five-year, and ten-year returns are designated as “high,” but it’s risk is also “high” or “above average.” What’s more, its returns haven’t been as high as Vanguard’s—just 8.1%, 11.75%, and 13.06% for one, three, and five years, respectively.
But Permanent stands out when you look at its worst returns. In its history as a fund, the worst three-month period it has ever experienced is -5.58%. By comparison, Vanguard shareholders would have suffered a -29.8% three-month period if they held the fund long enough.
Remember, the Vanguard Fund is 97% stocks. Permanent Portfolio, by stark contrast, is much more well balanced. As of July 31, 2007, it was 23% in cash, 32% in stocks, 21% in bonds, and 24% in “other”—which, as you might guess, means mostly precious metals. In fact, its four largest holdings are U.S. Golden Eagles, Gold Canadian Maple Leafs, COMEX Gold, and COMEX Silver.
It’s easy enough to look at these two funds and say Vanguard is superior, but it really depends on what you want as an investor. Do you want a well-managed mining-company fund, or do you want a mutual fund that gives you real exposure to gold and silver? If the answer is the latter, than Permanent Portfolio is your best bet.
One Not-So-Good Fund
Of the thirty gold and silver funds, only two received a five-star rating. Three others received four stars, and all the rest but one were either given three stars or weren’t rated. There was just one two-star fund: RiverSource Precious Metals & Mining.
Like the Vanguard Fund, RiverSource is predominantly stock-based. As of July 31, it had 96% of its $120 million invested in equities, more than half of which were foreign securities. Unfortunately, its selections haven’t panned out as well as Vanguard’s, with only a 7.06% year-to-date return.
Another negative aspect of RiverSource is its ultra-high expense ratio of 2.15%. By comparison, Vanguard has an expense ratio of just 0.35% and Permanent Portfolio’s is just 1.11%. Both of the five-star funds are no-load, whereas RiverSource has a 1% back-end load. All of these fees and expenses can really take a bite out of your returns, especially when the fund’s performance isn’t all that hot to begin with!
Finally, there are exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that allow investors a more direct access-point to gold and silver. For gold, there is streetTRACKS Gold (ticker: GLD), and for silver, there is iShares Silver Trust (SLV). Both of these funds are tied directly to the price of their corresponding precious metal, and invest in nothing other than gold and silver, respectively.
For example, streetTRACKS Gold is priced so that one share of the fund is equal to 1/10 an ounce of gold. The iShares Silver Trust is priced so that one share equals ten ounces of silver. However, these ratios don’t always hold up—GLD recently traded for $66.57 a share while gold was $670 an ounce; and SLV traded at $127.65 while silver was priced at $12.79. Nevertheless, these ETFs do give investors an easy way to own gold or silver, at least on paper.
It’s As Easy as Point and Click
So what is the best way to invest in precious metals? It’s really up to you—your preferences and investment goals. The only thing you must be sure of is if your strategy matches your investment objectives. For example, if you want real exposure to gold and silver, it's much better to purchase Permanent Portfolio than the Vanguard Fund—but even better yet to buy GLD and/or SLV.
But if maximum exposure isn't your goal, the Vanguard Fund could be a great investment. The best news is there are dozens of options which simply didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago. Now, with nothing more than a few hundred dollars and Internet access, anyone can hedge with and profit from precious metals.