Quick Summary: There's a lot of ways to invest your money. One of the most unique and least understood is the precious metal market, and more specifically, gold IRAs. We take a look at this non-traditional IRA to see if its the right place to invest your some of your retirement funds.
For those wanting to secure their financial future the marketplace includes a multitude of options: the litany of employer-provided 401(k) options including 403(b)s, health savings accounts, cash balance pension plans, non-qualified annuities, and of course the alphabet soup of IRAs - traditional IRA, Simple IRA, SEP IRA, and Roth IRA.
Add to that latter group one more option - the gold IRA.
While investing in gold IRA's is a much-discussed topic in certain circles - they have a prevalence for advertising on certain cable channels.
It remains outside of the mainstream and one of the least understood options for investing.
Some of the most common questions, aside from what, exactly, is a gold IRA, include:
- Is investing in a gold IRA a wise use of my retirement funds?
- Is the precious metal market much too volatile to be a suitable place for my money?
- Is the gold market simply just a scam to drain me of my hard earned retirement funds?
While plenty of questions surround gold IRAs and their respective lists of risks and rewards, there are also plenty of answers.
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In this Guide to Investing in a gold IRA we detail both the up- and downsides to gold IRAs, take a look at precious metals scams and tips for avoiding them, and how to get started with investing in a gold IRA.
What is a Gold IRA?
Before jumping into the specifics of gold IRAs, let's take a quick look at the separate components - gold and an IRA - as they relate to investing.
Gold is a precious metal commodity. It is considered a diversifying investment, much like stocks and bonds or real estate.
It's also viewed as a hedge against the more erratic behavior - relatively speaking - of the US dollar.
Investment strategies include holding gold as protection against inflation or as a means to profit from increases in gold prices.
A prime example of why gold could be considered an attractive investment involves looking at the metal's prices today and those almost 50 years ago.
At the beginning of 1970, gold's value was at $35 an ounce. At the end of 2018, an ounce fetched $1,282 on the open market.
Compare that to if you held $35 in cash in 1970. Yes, it's still worth $35 in cash today, although its buying power is now significantly reduced thanks to inflation.
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Of course, there is more to gold investment than comparing time frames half a century apart.
Later on, we will review the pros and cons of gold investment and why it's not necessarily for everyone. For now, let's touch on the other part of the equation in a gold IRA - the IRA.
Individual retirement accounts or IRAs are just that - retirement investment accounts.
Traditional IRAs lets an individual contribute pre-tax funds towards their retirement investments. The accounts can grow without the assessment of dividend or capital gains taxes.
Ultimately, the assessment of income tax only occurs when you withdraw money from the traditional IRA.
Another well-known IRA is a Roth IRA, which is similar in most respects to a traditional IRA except that it is established using after-tax funds. Traditional and Roth IRAs only hold cash or stocks and bonds.
Merging all of those concepts together, a gold IRA is an IRA account where the investment is gold, whether in IRS-approved in bars and coins, or other precious metals (which we outline below) versus the more traditional IRA holdings of stocks or bonds.
The account can be set up using either pre- or post-tax income.
What You Should Know Before Investing in a Gold IRA
Unlike traditional or Roth IRAs, there are a lot of small details involved with holding a gold IRA.
Considered a self-directed IRA, there are specific rules governing these accounts as dictated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Options for Gold IRA Investing
The most important aspect of a gold IRA is understanding what you can and cannot invest in as part of your precious metal IRA.
More than just gold, precious metals also include silver, platinum, and palladium, each of which has an approved list of bullion bars and coins that can part of a precious metal IRA.
Since this guide focuses on gold, though, the critical factor for meeting IRS standards is that the gold must adhere to a purity grade of 0.995 or higher.
As of this writing, that includes the following:
IRA Approved Precious Metals
American Gold Eagle Coin
American Gold Buffalo Coin
Australian Gold Kangaroo Coin
Australian Lunar Series Coin
Austrian Gold Philharmonic Coin
British Britannia Coin
Canadian Gold Maple Leaf Coin
Gold Chinese Panda Coin
Credit Suisse Gold Bar
Johnson Matthey Gold Bar
Valcambi Gold CombiBar
Conversely, the IRS forbids what is known as collectibles within the gold or precious metal IRAs.
These items, while popular and often included as part of substantial private collections or other investment pursuits, often do not meet the IRS purity standard or are valued at a much loftier level.
The unapproved list, unsurprisingly, is far more substantial.
However, gold investments are not solely about the physical metal itself.
Additional gold investments include peripheral considerations or a "paper" investment called exchange-traded funds or EFTs.
- Gold commodity exchange-traded fund
- Precious metals commodity futures
- Precious metal mutual funds
- Stock in gold mining companies
Gold paper investments may be more attractive for those investors who are more risk-averse towards holding physical gold, and if your interest lies in even greater diversification of your gold investments, it's worth discussing paper options with your broker.
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Gold IRA Rollover Rules & Regulations
As with all IRAs, IRS rules govern how gold IRAs are established and maintained.
We cover a few of the items more in-depth (administrators, storage), but here is a quick overview of some key rules and regulations for gold IRAs.
If you want a gold IRA, you are required to open it with an administrator who handles precious metals and is approved by the IRS.
Even though you direct it personally, administrators (brokers, custodians, etc.) are still necessary to act on your behalf.
Gold and other precious metals that make up an IRA require storage in vault facilities approved by the IRS.
Actual possession of the gold on your part is deemed a distribution by IRS, which means they are subject to taxes or penalties.
Distributions - taking physical possession of the gold - are subject to income tax at the point of withdrawal.
Early distributions see a levy of 10% unless it falls under a predetermined exclusion (see below). Profits can see further assessments via capital gains tax.
Gold IRA contribution limits are $6,000 per year, increasing to $7,000 annually once you turn 50 years of age.
It can be funded via rollover or with a purchase made through your administrator.
Access to your gold IRA are restricted to age 59½, although you are under no requirement to start taking distributions at that age.
You will, however, have to take distributions beginning at age 70.
Early Withdrawal Limitations
We use the word limitations because while there is a 10% penalty for early withdrawal, there are a number of exceptions to the rule, including:
- IRA owner becomes disabled or is hospitalized without means to pay the medical bill.
- IRA owner dies, and their beneficiary requires access to the funds.
- IRA owner loses employment and needs access to funds.
- IRA owner wants to purchase a new, first time home (can use up to $10,000) or fund a family members education.
Precious Metal Types
As we identified earlier there is a limit to the precious metals included in your self-directed IRA.
The IRS stipulates a minimum purity requirement for gold of 0.995 or 24 carats, which you can find in a limited number of products.
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As we noted earlier, gold IRAs are self-directed, meaning the individual investor has more direct control over the account and can include a broader range of investments in the account than a traditional IRA.
However, when dealing with gold, you will require the services of a broker to purchase the gold and/or a custodian to serve as the account administrator.
This is one area where investing with metals can get tricky. Custodians are federal or state-approved agencies such as banks, brokerage firms, credit unions, savings and loans, or trust companies that serve as asset-custody providers.
In other words, these services facilitate safekeeping of the securities and management of the account for the individual investor. They do not, however, directly sell the gold to the clients.
The acquisition, or the identification of the dealer, falls to the actual investor.
Due to the nature of the gold market, though, many custodians are likely to have recommendations for preferred dealers or vice versa.
The choice for both though remains with the investor.
Unfortunately, when dealing in gold, not everything is black and white. Precious metal investing is highly specialized, and scams are prevalent.
To ensure you make a sound investment, you'll need to conduct plenty of research as to which firms will best fit your needs.
In regards to finding the right companies to deal with, look for transparency - both in how they conduct themselves and the fees involved in their stewardship or the acquisition of the gold.
You want your investment to make money, not lose it.
Reputation in the gold market is equally as important. Review third party ratings and consumer reviews to find the ones that add up to a good overall experience.
When interviewing different groups, be aware of those looking to make a quick sale as opposed to those genuinely wanting to earn your business and your trust.
Just because gold IRAs are less popular than traditional ones, doesn't mean they are any less regulated.
Legitimate groups will be current on their required licenses, bonds and insurance, and registrations.
If something seems out of place, or a firm makes excuses for anything that is out of date, look elsewhere.
Finally, you'll want to find a firm that has your interests in mind. Every investor is different, and all have different goals.
The best companies recognize this and will be able to tailor their services to your specific needs.
When it comes to finding the right dealer, the choice often comes down to two options: buy local or buy online.
At first glance, a local purchase might seem the more attractive option - it's immediate, you can negotiate face to face, it's a tangible transaction, and there are no shipping or handling fees.
However, gold purchased locally can see a significant markup thanks to overhead. A buyback may also prove problematic if the original purchase was made on a large scale.
Alternatively, online transactions help mitigate a lot of the risk involved in buying gold. Prices are lower. Account management is more robust.
In addition, they are better equipped to fulfill large orders, which is particularly crucial if you hope to make a sizable gold investment.
For the majority of investors, online purchasing is the smarter option. In the same way you would custodians, look for dealers that are transparent, reputable, and will view you as a valued client, not an easy target.
Gold Storage Options
One of the more unique aspects of gold and Gold IRA's is storage.
Whether by theft or fraud, gold and other precious metals are at risk for being compromised.
As such, the IRS deemed it necessary to protect these IRA related commodities within agency approved vaults.
This storage is not just for safeguarding but to also ensure accurate inventory.
Even with the strict IRS storage regulations, there are several methods for housing the gold that makes up gold-based IRAs.
Here are the details on each.
US-Based Storage Vaults (recommended)
Six IRS approved depository vaults hold practically all of the metals that make up every precious metal IRA account in the country.
Not only gold, but also silver, palladium, and platinum.
The six vaults include:
- Brinks Security
- CNT Depository
- Delaware Depository
- HSBC Bank USA
- JPMorgan Chase Bank North America
- Scotia Mocatta
While storage in both the US and foreign territories are viable, the international option may be more attractive for those who fear possible confiscation of their metal.
There is a precedent for it having occurred once in the US, in the 1930s. Seizure is less likely in places like Dubai or Singapore.
Offshore Storage Vaults (recommended)
Not long ago, storage of IRA-related gold had to be within US borders. The IRS recently relaxed this stipulation allowing investors the opportunity to house their gold IRA internationally.
However, as they do in the US, the offshore vaults are IRS-approved and possess some familiar names.
- Brinks Security - London
- HSBC Bank USA - Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Zurich
- JPMorgan Chase Bank - London and Singapore
- Regal Assets (int. vaults only) - Dubai and Singapore
- Scotia Mocatta - Toronto
Co-Mingled Storage & Segregated Storage
This group storage typically serves as a means to lower costs for the depository company. The gold is then tracked as a single inventory with designations for which clients own which metals.
The alternative is segregated storage. In this scenario, in contract with the vault facility, your gold is stored and inventoried separately - either in its own room or a safe deposit box - away from the group metal cache.
Although the separate storage is seemingly a more appealing alternative to the less secure collective storage, the vault facility will charge a higher premium for this method.
Home Storage (not recommended)
The last means of gold storage - at home storage - is one that is not recommended and strongly frowned upon by the IRS - even if they have not yet altogether outlawed it.
The basic principle involves you, the investor, creating an LLC, and housing the metal in a safe at your residence.
Effectively you become your own trustee, as opposed to the third-party trustee the IRS intended for gold IRAs.
The issue then becomes that any withdrawals made are done so without the oversight of the IRS.
Again, while the method is highly frowned upon by, it's important to understand the existence of this loophole as some gold IRA companies may promote it as a viable option.
If they do, you may want to look elsewhere for a company to do business with.
Associated Gold IRA Fees
A gold IRA may be a worthwhile option for diversifying your retirement portfolio, but it will come with certain costs that more traditional IRAs don't.
Keep this in mind as you research different precious metal IRA companies and services and weighing what you'll have to pay for what you get in return.
This cost may be common with any type of IRA, but due to the uniqueness and special circumstances surrounding gold IRAs, a firm might change a higher than normal fee to start the account.
Broker / Custodian Fees
Another standard IRA fee, these annual expenses may again be higher than a traditional IRA due to dealing and transacting with precious metals.
Regardless of where you purchase your gold, prepare to purchase it with some level of markup on top of the current market rate.
More so with local dealers (to cover overhead, among other considerations), these additional charges are one-time fees that may also vary based on the specific transaction type (different between purchasing bullion versus coins versus proofs versus bars).
We already outlined the intricacies of gold IRA storage, and it's critical to recognize that securing your gold comes with its own costs.
Depending on the specific storage agreement, vaulting costs are incurred either monthly or annually and can vary widely based on several factors including whether the gold is housed in the US or offshore or is kept co-mingled or maintained separately.
Close Out Expenses
A significant drawback to the gold IRA transpires should you decide to close out the account and sell your gold.
Dealers will look for transactions under market value while some firms will buy it back at market rates.
In either case, depending on current market value and your original purchase, you could risk losing money when cashing out.
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10 Gold IRA Scams & How to Identify & Avoid Them
Make no mistake, the world of investment draws in its fair share of scammers.
After all, unscrupulous people prey on individuals hoping to maximize every last cent of their income to secure a bright future.
Due to its misunderstood nature, and the leg work required on the part of the investor to make the investment happen, gold IRAs, in particular, lend themselves to a number of scams.
From a well-honed pitchman targeting the novice investor to companies exploiting the "too good to be true" hopefulness of people aiming for big returns - making a smart gold investment also means protecting yourself against making a bad one.
Before contracting with any group, heavily research several companies or dealers you're considering doing business with, and be alert for any of the following ten precious metals scams.
Gold Access is Limited
Or in a worst case scenario, it is non-existent. This scam often preys on the novice investor who is uncertain of how to verify that their gold was actually purchased on their behalf.
Similar falsehoods also crop up when a custodian is trying to hard-sell self-storage options, which we've already pointed out is a bad idea.
Reputable administrators will be able to provide you an iron-clad certification that gold purchases have been made in your name and that gold is in a proper vaulting facility.
To avoid being ensnared by the (false) promise of numismatic coins, you must recognize the difference between them and bullion coins.
Numismatic coins are most often rare collection pieces that have a much higher value than whatever metal makes up the coin itself (due to scarcity, significance, or collectibility).
Dealers may push the numismatics over the IRS-approved bullion coins to much higher profit for themselves while leaving unsuspecting customers with nothing for their IRA.
Legitimate numismatic coins may be fine as a standalone collection item, but they cannot be part of your gold IRA investment.
Misleading business practices can crop up in any number of ways, but one of the most prevalent in regards to gold IRAs, is convincing a client they are investing in gold, when in fact they only end up with nothing more than a gold certificate.
The fallout in this scam is similar to that of limited gold access except that you do get verification, but with limited or no gold supporting it.
Push Towards Non-Diversification
A healthy retirement portfolio is one that is diversified, with varied investments and assets.
Greedy salespeople have been known to push the false narrative that "all that glitters is gold," in an attempt to guide investors in placing the majority of their investments in precious metals.
Regardless of how believable the pitch may sound, gold IRAs are niche investment products, that serve as a moderate, long-term hedge against unforeseen economic scenarios.
No more than 10% to 15% of your overall portfolio should be dedicated towards gold.
Offers that seem too good to be true usually are, but that doesn't stop nefarious salespeople from trying to convince you otherwise.
Whether it's a phone call or email, always approach unsolicited offers with a highly critical eye - even those that originate with seemingly reputable companies.
One other consideration to be aware of with unsolicited offers is an unannounced in-person sales visits.
These interactions often target the elderly, putting them on the spot with the salesperson taking advantage of what they deem an easy target.
Meaningless Grading or Certification
Be wary of any dealers that offer gold grading or certification as an add on service.
This scam involves the considerable markup of a service that, through an investors own diligence and research, should cost next to nothing.
Again, going back to the importance of research, there is no greater protection from markup scams like these than your own verification process.
We've touched on it several times, but will reiterate it again - home storage is a non-starter when it comes to precious metals IRAs, including gold.
Be highly suspect of any gold IRA firm that tries to sell you on its merits.
Chances are likely they will be aiming to take advantage of you in other ways as well.
It's crucial for new gold investors to realize that gold is a long term investment with no actual guarantees of huge returns.
Sure it's seen a huge rise over the past 30 years, but growth in the past decade has been relatively modest.
Certain dealers will zero in on this misunderstanding and convince an investor to borrow money from them to purchase their gold.
The investor believes the return on the gold will far outweigh any interest on the loan, when in fact the opposite is true.
This is ultimately a high-risk transaction that bets big on odds not typically in the investor's favor.
This tactic involves an investor that uses a broker for the purchase of gold having to pay the broker's commission by way of a significant markup on the gold.
Usually, this happens when the broker recommends the use of a dealer with whom they have a working relationship.
You can avoid this scam by cutting out the broker completely and working with the dealers directly.
You'll still need a custodian, but this is a more direct and economical path to gold ownership.
Finally, be wary of hidden or unreported fees from any person or firm you may deal with during the gold IRA process.
From brokers and custodians to dealers and storage, there are plenty of known fees associated with gold, which makes it easy for companies to take advantage of the situation by slipping in extra costs.
By no means do we want to scare you off from the potential upside of a gold IRA.
But again, the uniqueness of dealing with precious metals, and the lack of general understanding that untrained investors bring with them, opens up the gold business to its share of scammers.
It's important to protect yourself.
Gold IRA Pros & Cons
After reading through the finer points, the final piece of the puzzle before moving forward a gold IRA is looking at the pros and cons of this highly specific investment.
To be sure, investing in gold is not well-suited for most investors. For others, though, it could make sense within the context of their current portfolios or investment strategies.
Let's take a look then at the more significant pros and cons of gold IRAs
- Gold is a Wise Long Term Bet: Historically, gold performs well. Consider our earlier example of what $35 in cash bought you in the 1970s versus what it buys you today. $35 for an ounce of gold in 1970 is now worth roughly $1,300. It's never a bad idea to have that type of proven appreciation in your retirement portfolio.
- Gold Maintains Value: Even when it's down, relative to past performance, gold can add consistent value to your portfolio. This acts as a powerful hedge in times when the dollar and the traditional market of stocks and bonds underperform, or inflation is on the rise.
- Gold Provides Portfolio Insurance: Gold performed well during the financial downturn of the late 1970s and more recently during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. It's an excellent asset to have in your possession when times are turbulent.
- Gold is a Long Play: If you're hoping for substantial, instant profits, you won't see it through gold investment. Barring anything catastrophic, gold value moves slowly, with only the most committed investors seeing any real profits.
- Gold Only Yields Gold: Unlike stocks and bonds which produce dividends and interest, respectively, gold yields no such financial gain. Its value is solely predicated on what it's worth within the current market at a specific point in time.
- Gold Isn't for the Faint of Heart: There's a lot of work involved on the part of the investor in establishing a gold IRA (along with a lot more costs versus regular IRAs). Then there is a lot of trust placed in the institutions you must deal with and in believing your investment is a safe and sound one - all for an investment in which you'll almost never see the tangible result.
How to Get Started
While there are several moving parts, getting started with a gold IRA, is, for the most part, a relatively simple process.
First, you'll want to determine if you're going to roll over funds from an existing IRA or transfer them.
In a rollover, you receive the funds from the originating account and deposit them into the new gold IRA, usually with your custodian.
You have 60 days in which to complete this transaction.
Otherwise, the IRS will consider it a withdrawal, and you will be taxed accordingly and levied the 10% early withdrawal charge (if under the age limit for distributions). You are only allowed a single rollover annually.
In a transfer, the money moves directly from the old account to the new gold IRA. There is no limit on the number of transfers you can make.
In either case, you can roll over or transfers funds from a 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan or from a traditional or Roth IRA.
The next step involves selecting your gold IRA custodian. As previously detailed, you'll need to heavily research the pluses and minuses of several providers not only to find one that is reputable and trustworthy but will also work towards meeting your investment goals.
As part of this process, you also want to determine your specific gold IRA investment strategy. Generally speaking, you do not want to invest any more than 10% to 15% of your overall portfolio towards gold IRAs.
If it's merely diversification you're hoping to achieve, then anything around 10% or lower should suffice. If you are hedging against any loss of value in paper currencies, then investment anywhere between 10% and 15% is quite common.
However, if your aim is to wager on the potential for gold to significantly increase in the short term, 15% (or higher) allocation could result in major profits.
As expected, though, this approach also carries with it major risks, should the market move in the opposite direction.
The last step comes when you're ready to make the actual gold purchase.
We'll reiterate that online dealers are a far better solution versus local dealers, particularly for those first time gold IRA investors or those looking to avoid higher markups.
As you would with custodians, seek out only those IRS-approved dealers with favorable ratings, transparent pricing and policies, and excellent reputations with their clients.
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Final Thoughts: Is the Risk of Gold IRAs Worth the Reward?
Admittedly, gold IRAs are not for everybody. They are very much a niche product that may not fit within more conventional portfolios.
However, if you're searching for ways to diversify otherwise straightforward investment strategies, a gold IRA could prove a wise, long-term approach to hedge against potentially unfavorable market conditions in the future.
Just remember that gold, much like every other investment, is driven by a marketplace that moves both up and down. High returns are indeed possible, but so are huge losses, and it may take decades for either to occur.
If you want to add gold to your investments, perform plenty of research on your own, and consult with a trusted financial advisor to determine if there are any advantages to including it to your financial plan.
All that glitters may not be gold, but it has the potential to add a nice sparkle to the right investment portfolio.
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