Beware of scary ads pushing you to buy gold

Bernard Condon
Associated Press

If you thought the Brexit vote was scary, check out the full page newspaper ad that recently appeared in the New York Times recounting all the horrors in the present tense, as if they were still unfolding: The vote “topples” the British government, “crushes” the pound and “wipes away” billions in stock market wealth.

Then came the purpose behind all the panicky prose.

“Buy Gold Now!”

Investors have done just that, pushing the price of the metal to a two-year high. Before joining the rush, experts warn, beware that assets marketed as conservative and safe bought in a panic can sometimes wallop investors with losses they were trying to avoid.

The ad was from a company selling gold coins that is run by is Philip Diehl, a coin expert with an impressive pedigree. He was staff director of the Senate Finance committee, chief of staff at the Treasury Department, then head of the U.S. Mint.

The company he heads, U.S. Money Reserve, may sound like U.S. Mint, but it is an unrelated, private company, as readers can see in the fine print.

Barbara Roper, a director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, has no opinion on gold itself, but urges caution. She notes that investments sold as “safe” to investors are often anything but.

Gold soared during the financial crisis, fell in the four years through the end of last year, then began climbing sharply in recent months.

On Monday, gold hit $1,366 an ounce, up 28 percent since the start of the year. In the five trading days after the Brexit vote, $2.7 billion rushed into gold funds, according to EPFR, a research firm. That is more than 10 times the typical weekly investment in the last bull market for gold in 2011.

Regulators have long warned of shady sales practices in selling physical metal, though.

The Texas attorney general accused the sales staff of U.S. Money Reserve of misleading customers responding to TV ads about its regular bullion coins, convincing them to buy more expensive commemorative coins by making false claims about how those would rise in value faster.

The danger with gold is it doesn’t pay interest like a bond or represent a share of a company like a stock. It is only worth what people believe it’s worth. Even after the recent surge, it’s worth less than it was worth five years ago. A hypothetical $150,000 invested at the peak price in September 2011 would have left you with $106,000 today, down 29 percent.