Paper Gold Vs. Real Gold: It's Important to Know the Difference

Mike Maharrey Mike Maharrey

Mike Maharrey

March 8th, 2024 Comments

When you’re considering investing in precious metals, you are confronted with many options. Silver or gold? Bars or coins? And what in the world is an ETF?

Understanding the differences between an ETF and physical gold and silver is an important first step in the journey to precious metals investing.

ETF is an acronym for “Exchange Traded Fund.” In simplest terms, an ETF represents a basket of investments that trades on the market as a single entity. An ETF could represent just one commodity, such as oil, or it could hold a wide range of assets such as tech stocks. The mix of securities that can potentially be held in an ETF is limited only by your imagination.

Just like stocks, ETFs are sold in shares. The price rises and falls throughout the trading day as they are bought and sold on the market just like a stock or bond.

In the world of precious metals, there are gold and silver ETFs. Some funds hold a mix of metals and others include mining stocks. 

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus on gold ETFs, but the same principles hold for silver-backed funds.

A gold ETF is backed by a trust company that holds metal owned and stored by the trust. In most cases, investing in an ETF does not entitle you to any amount of physical gold. You own a share of the ETF, not gold itself.

The most popular gold ETF is the SPDR Gold Shares Exchange Traded Fund (GLD). This ETF was established in 2004 and roughly tracks the market price of gold bullion.

So, why would anybody invest in an ETF instead of physical metal?

Convenience and low transaction fees.

ETFs are relatively liquid. You can buy or sell an ETF with a couple of mouse clicks. You don’t have to worry about transporting or storing metal. In a nutshell, it allows investors to play the gold market without buying full ounces of metal at the spot price.

Since you are just buying a number in a computer, you can easily trade your ETF shares for another stock or cash whenever you want, even multiple times on the same day. Many speculative investors take advantage of this liquidity.

But it’s important to understand that investing in an ETF is not the same as owning gold.

While a gold ETF is a convenient way to play the price of gold on the market, you don’t actually possess any gold. You have paper. And you don’t know for sure the fund has all the gold gold either, especially when the fund sees inflows.  In such a scenaria, there have been difficulties or delays in obtaining physical metal.

SPDR claims it backs its entire $52 billion market capitalization in physical bullion. It probably does. But you you can’t go inspect the gold in their vault. And they won’t give you the metal you’re indirectly investing in if you call them to ask for it.

The fund says it has gold, and you’re taking their word for it.

It's important to consider that the investment bank HSBC serves as the primary custodian, overseeing the vaults holding SPDR's gold.  And there can be a daisy chain of sub-custodians and sub-sub-custodians involved. And finally, it's possible there could be multiple claims on some of the bars held.

These elements introduce significant counterparty risk.

On the other hand, owning physical gold comes with very little counterparty risk. If you buy gold coins or gold bars and store them in a safe at home, there isn’t another party involved. You know exactly how much gold you have and where it is. There is no other party to default, commit fraud, or make a mistake.

If you store your physical gold in a depository -- either in segregeated or allocated form -- you maintain direct ownership of the metal.  While it's true you are relying on a third party, your metals remaing your property at all times. 

There are plenty of reasons to invest in ETFs, but it is not a substitute for owning physical gold.

Mike Maharrey

About the Author:

Mike Maharrey is a journalist and market analyst for with over a decade of experience in precious metals. He holds a BS in accounting from the University of Kentucky and a BA in journalism from the University of South Florida.