Gold ETF vs. Gold Futures (GLD vs. GC)

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Written By
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Written By
Dan Buckley
Dan Buckley is an US-based trader, consultant, and part-time writer with a background in macroeconomics and mathematical finance. He trades and writes about a variety of asset classes, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, and interest rates. As a writer, his goal is to explain trading and finance concepts in levels of detail that could appeal to a range of audiences, from novice traders to those with more experienced backgrounds.

Gold attracts traders/investors for its potential to hedge against currency devaluation, inflation (over the long run), and economic/geopolitical unknowns.

Two popular instruments for gold trading or investment are gold exchange-traded funds (ETFs), commonly represented (most commonly) by GLD, and gold futures, denoted by GC.

Each offers distinct features, benefits, and risks.


Key Takeaways – Gold ETF vs. Gold Futures (GLD vs. GC)

  • Investment Accessibility
    • Gold ETFs (e.g., GLD) offer easy access for traders/investors to gain exposure to gold prices without dealing with physical gold.
    • Gold futures (e.g., GC) are often preferred by professional traders for speculation and hedging.
  • Costs and Leverage
    • Futures allow significant leverage but come with higher potential costs due to margin requirements, unlike ETFs which have lower entry barriers and costs.
  • Price Tracking
    • ETFs heavily reflect gold’s spot price dynamics and are suitable for long-term holding.
    • Futures are influenced by future delivery dates, which makes them better-suited for short-term trading and hedging strategies.


Understanding Gold ETFs (e.g., GLD)

Gold ETFs, like GLD (or IAU, to a lesser extent), are investment funds traded on stock exchanges, much like stocks.

They track the price of gold and are backed by physical gold holdings.

Ease of Investment

Buying and selling GLD shares is as simple as trading stocks.

This makes it accessible for individual traders/investors.

Investors/traders don’t directly deal with the physical gold.

This avoids storage and insurance concerns.

Costs and Expenses

GLD involves management fees, which impacts the long-term returns slightly.

ETFs are subject to brokerage fees during buying and selling.

Transparency and Liquidity

GLD offers high liquidity, which enables traders/investors to enter and exit positions quickly.

Long-term traders/investors might prefer IAU, which is a cheaper (but less liquid) alternative. (And comes with less liquid options markets.)

The price of these ETFs closely tracks the spot price of gold, which ensures transparency.

Related: How Does GLD Invest in Gold?


Understanding Gold Futures (GC)

Gold Futures are contractual agreements to buy or sell gold at a predetermined price at a specific date in the future.

Leverage and Margin

Futures allow investors to control large quantities of gold with a relatively small amount of capital, which offers higher leverage.

The initial margin requirement makes futures high-risk when the position is too concentrated.

Settlement and Delivery

Gold futures contracts can settle in physical delivery or cash.

Most traders prefer to roll over their positions to avoid physical delivery (which often isn’t available anyway).

Traders should be aware of the contract’s expiration date and rollover requirements to avoid unwanted issues.

Market Exposure and Risks

Futures are highly sensitive to market changes due to leverage.

They provide the potential for high gains but also significant losses if not managed appropriately.

Traders require a thorough understanding of the futures market and the specific contract details.


Comparing GLD and GC

Investment Objectives

GLD is suitable for traders seeking exposure to gold prices with the convenience of trading a stock.

GC is sometimes preferred by experienced traders aiming for higher returns through leverage and those willing to manage the risks of futures trading.

Costs and Management

GLD incurs management fees and brokerage costs, while GC involves brokerage fees, margin requirements, and potentially higher transaction costs (due to the spread between bid and ask prices).

Risk Profile

GLD offers a straightforward investment in gold with a lower risk profile compared to GC.

GC, due to its leverage, presents a higher risk and potential for both significant gains and losses.


Alternatives to GLD and GC

Exploring alternatives to GLD (Gold ETFs) and GC (Gold Futures) introduces traders to a variety of options, each with unique characteristics, risks, and benefits.

These alternatives offer different ways to invest in or gain exposure to gold and other precious metals.

Physical Gold

Direct Ownership

Investors can purchase gold in the form of coins, bars, or bullion.

This option provides tangible assets but requires secure storage and insurance, which add to the overall cost.

Futures, however, already factor in this cost, given it’s a structurally contango market (upward-sloping futures curve).

Purity and Authenticity

Ensuring the purity of gold and buying from reputable dealers are important to avoid counterfeit or low-quality products.

Gold Mutual Funds

Diversified Investment

These funds invest in a basket of gold-related assets, including mining stocks, ETFs, and bullion.

They offer diversification within the gold sector.

Professional Management

Managed by experienced professionals who make decisions based on extensive research.

Management fees apply, which can impact returns.

Gold Mining Stocks

Company Performance

Investors buy stocks of companies involved in gold mining and exploration.

Stock prices are influenced not only by gold prices but also by the company’s performance, management, and mining operations.

For example, GDX and GDXJ are gold miner ETFs.

Dividend Potential

Some gold mining companies pay dividends, which can provide an income stream in addition to potential capital appreciation.

Gold Certificates

Ownership Without Physical Holding

Certificates represent ownership of a specific quantity of gold without the need to store the physical metal.

They’re issued by banks or gold dealers and can be traded.

Trust and Verification

The credibility of the issuer is paramount to ensure the actual backing of gold.

Investors should verify authenticity and ensure proper documentation.

Digital Gold

Technological Convenience

Platforms offer the option to buy, sell, and hold gold digitally.

Physical gold is securely stored by the service provider.

Transactions are executed online, which provides convenience and quick access.

Purity and Security

The purity of gold is guaranteed, and the holdings are usually backed by insured vaults.

It’s essential to choose reputable platforms with strong security measures.

Precious Metals ETFs and Mutual Funds for Broader Exposure

These funds invest in a basket of precious metals, including gold, silver, platinum, and palladium.

They offer diversification beyond gold, which can spread risk across different metals.

But they can also be less liquid and have industrial uses that make them link up with global credit cycles (which may reduce their diversification potential).



Choosing between GLD and GC depends on the individual trader/investor’s risk tolerance, investment objectives, and understanding of the gold market.

GLD offers a simpler and more direct way to trade/invest in gold, while GC appeals to more seasoned investors looking for leverage and the potential for higher returns.

Investors must consider the costs, risks, and operational aspects of each instrument before making a decision.