There’s a financial meme out there that suggests gold and silver have outperformed stocks over the past 20 years. The chart looks something like this:
Gold line = gold
Silver line = silver
Blue line = Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA)
Red = S&P 500
Looking at this chart, one might come to the conclusion that gold and sliver outperform stocks over the long run. However this conclusion is incorrect.
First of all, the relative performance shown in the chart is very sensitive to start and end dates. For example, if the chart goes back an additional 10 years the outcome completely reverses with stocks outperforming gold and silver:
Alternatively, if I shift the 20 year period to 1959-1979 gold and silver’s out-performance is dramatically amplified.
The point I’m trying to make is that the relative performance of gold and silver is highly dependent on the time period in question. In other words, the performance of precious metals changes with the economic environment. One cannot judge long-run expected returns for gold and silver based on any single period alone.
The next point I want to make is that these memes often make the mistake of comparing gold and silver against the price returns of various stock indices. The charts above use the price returns for the DJIA and S&P 500. Price returns don’t include dividends and therefore provide an incomplete picture of the actual returns from holding stocks.
Below, I’ve re-created the charts and added a black line that represents the total returns provided by large cap stocks (using the Wilshire Large Cap Index back to 1978 and S&P 500 Total Returns Index prior to 1978). While the price return for S&P 500 (red line) was 129% over the 20 year period, the Total Return (black line) was 240%. Gold and silver still dramatically outperformed during this 20 year period.
Like in the previous example, extending the history to 30 years flips the script. While the price indices outperform (as they did in the earlier example) the new total returns line dominates. The added compounding effects of dividends becomes increasingly noticeable as time goes on.
The farther back you go, the more impactful the compounding effects of dividends become. The following chart compares 100 years of returns, with the total returns index being the clear winner, while gold, silver and price return stock indices barely register.
Today, we could be in a period in which gold and silver outperforms stocks. This out-performance is highly dependent on the prevailing economics, such as negative real yields and currency depreciation. There are so many factors that nobody really knows for sure.
I personally believe a strategic allocation to gold can help improve portfolio risk-return characteristics. I also believe that we might be in an economic environment in which gold outperforms stocks. However, to extrapolate the out-performance of the last 20 years to argue that precious metals should provide higher expected returns over the long-run is misleading.