Why you should care

The shiny precious metal has tripled in value over the past decade. Need we say more?

When the housing and stock markets began tanking in 2008, Steven Conrad of Grass Valley, California, noticed that the price of gold started climbing rapidly. Thinking it was a good time to start investing, he bought a couple of Krugerrands — South African 1-ounce gold coins that are one of the more popular types of bullion — for around $850 to $900 a pop. And, being the millennial that he is, he didn’t seek out investment advice from a financial planner or mom and dad. Instead, he picked up some books and logged in to the Reddit investing site “to get advice from people who had more experience than I did.” Now 29, Conrad has since diversified his holdings, though 10 percent of his portfolio remains invested in shiny, shimmering gold.

Millennials have spent their postcollege years saddled with school debt and struggling more than older folks to find gigs in this particular job market. So it’s no surprise that when it comes to money matters, 23 percent of them don’t trust anyone (namely the financial services market), according to a 2014 study conducted by Fidelity Investments. The result? Their portfolios are heavily weighted in cash and significantly light on stocks — and in what might surprise many, this generation isn’t attracted to new types of investments either. In fact, 80 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds would rather own nuggets of gold than digital bits of bitcoin.

Millennials are more like the Depression-era people than their parents.

Jeffrey Christian, managing partner of CPM Group, a commodities research firm in New York City

Indeed, as millennials seek financial safety, some of them see investing in the precious metal as protection against the ups and downs of the stock market and as a way to hedge against inflation. It’s not a new strategy, of course. For years, gold has been a haven for silver-haired investors looking to shelter their retirement savings against market volatility. Chinese and Indian consumers have always had large appetites for the yellow metal, as well, thanks in part to cultural traditions and a history of unreliable financial systems. Last year, they gobbled roughly half of the globe’s demand for gold, purchasing 1,656.3 metric tons, according to the World Gold Council. Other people buying up bullion and gold bars include those fearing financial doomsday — like the collapse of the U.S. Federal Reserve! … and a return to the gold standard! — and those who like to hold investments that are outside government purview.

But the market crash and subsequent sharp increase in the price of gold has also attracted millennial investors from Europe and China and, more recently, within the U.S. Hunger for the precious metal has slowed in the past couple of years — bar and coin investment was down 40 percent last year from 2013, after all — but it’s still alluring to those in their 20s and early 30s, given that it has tripled in value to about $1,200 an ounce over the past decade. Few would think it, but when it comes to investing these days, “millennials are more like the Depression-era people than their parents,” says Jeffrey Christian, managing partner of CPM Group, a commodities research firm in New York City.

Having lived through the dot-com bubble at the turn of the century and the Great Recession, this generation is extremely risk averse when it comes to wealth management, experts say. They’ve been “essentially scared out of equities,” notes Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, a financial services company.

Yet this reaction isn’t serving them well. The conservative mindset of millennials “is detrimental to the long-term financial security of this group because they’re going to have the biggest retirement-savings burden in history,” says McBride. With fewer pensions, longer life spans and higher health care costs, millennials need bigger nest eggs than previous generations. If gold — which doesn’t pay dividends or interest — is the sole investment in their portfolio, their retirement savings will be woefully inadequate, some experts argue. (By the way, investing all that money in real estate, art, collectibles or wine is also ill-advised.)

Plus, some experts note that gold is actually quite risky, despite its conservative reputation. “Its price swings are too extreme, its returns have been unimpressive relative to the stock market and it’s much more volatile,” warns Patrick O’Shaughnessy, author of Millennial Money: How Young Investors Can Build a Fortune. It might not be a successful hedge against inflation either, particularly when compared with the long-term return of equities, according to a 2012 study published by the financial company Credit Suisse.

Still, investing in a small percentage of gold (around 5 percent) can be an important part of a diversified portfolio, experts suggest. Some millennial investors, including Conrad, invest in stocks while continuing to purchase gold for those what-if moments. It’s “not a major moneymaker so much as security against historic volatility in the market,” Conrad explains. After all, gold does zig when the market zags, which is a good thing, O’Shaughnessy notes.

For now, Conrad plans to keep stockpiling gold, purchasing 1 ounce every year. “One day, I plan to buy a chest and fill it — like a pirate’s treasure chest,” he says with excitement. “It seems like a reasonable and fun goal for 15 to 20 years down the road.” Provided that it’s not his only investment, of course.

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