3 Top Gold Stocks to Buy Now

By Markets Fool.com

Image source: Barrick Gold.

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Gold has historically been used as a store of wealth. But what's the best way to go about gaining exposure to the barbarous metal? That's a hard question to answer. Here are three of the top gold stocks to buy now, offering you a lot more gold-owning options than you may have known existed.

The punt

The first gold stock to look at is SPDR Gold Trust (NYSEMKT: GLD). This exchange-traded fund actually owns gold -- at last count, over 950 tons of the stuff. In fact, this is probably the next best thing to owning gold coins, and perhaps better in some ways if you want to own a lot of gold. SPDR Gold Trust does levy an annual expense ratio of 0.40%, so it's not a free lunch. But if you owned bullion directly you wouldn't avoid costs either, including the expense to store it and likely a markup when you bought it.

If you want to physically hold gold (in case of the zombie apocalypse, for example), then get some bullion. But if what you really want is exposure to gold for diversification purposes or as a store of wealth, SPDR Gold Trust is a really good, and highly liquid, option that can be easily scaled up or down based on your needs. It also allows you to avoid the complications that come with mining and selling precious metals.

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GLD data by YCharts.

A cheapskate

That said, gold miners offer investors more exposure to the price movements of the metalbecause once a miner's costs are covered its earnings can expand quickly. Take, for example, the roughly 110% year-to-date price gain at Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX), one of the gold-mining industry's largest players. That handily outdistances SPDR Gold Trust's gain of "only" 18% or so over the same span. And if you are looking for a gold miner, Barrick stacks up pretty well today, despite some overly aggressive investment made during gold's headier days.

For example, Barrick's all-in sustaining costs, a measure of how much it costs to pull an ounce of gold out of the ground, are at roughly the 40th percentile (around $840 an ounce) on the cost curve, compared to some of its largest peers. However, the company's core mines sit at around the 15th percentile, with costs of around $660 an ounce. The goal is to keep trimming the overall cost, using the core portfolio of mines as a foundation.

Image source: Barrick Gold.

At this point Barrick has plenty of leeway between the current price of gold and its costs to turn a profit. Moreover, the huge asset writedowns that have hampered results the last few years could finally be over, now that gold prices appear to have stabilized. So there's every reason to believe that Barrick's business is finally heading in the right direction and at a lower cost than its peers. That's the kind of backdrop that an investor could learn to love.

Gold without the mines

The third gold stock to look at, Royal Gold (NASDAQ: RGLD), sells gold but doesn't own any mines at all. Royal Gold is a bit like a specialty finance company that gets paid in precious metals. Essentially, it gives miners money up front for the right to buy gold at a future date and -- this is important -- at reduced rates.

For example, Royal Gold inked a deal with Barrick in late 2015 that gave the miner $610 million in exchange for the right to buy gold and silver, up to a threshold, at 30% of spot prices. After certain delivery targets are met, that jumps to 60% of the spot price, but still leaves plenty of room for Royal Gold to make money. This particular agreement was a streaming deal, but Royal Gold has royalty deals in its portfolio as well. Low costs, however, are pretty much baked in to everything it does.

This is an interesting option for investors who want to avoid the risks of running a mining operation, but still want a little more leverage than owning gold directly affords. Royal Gold, by the way, has turned out to be a pretty consistent company, having increased its dividend for 15 consecutive years -- including right through the commodities downturn that started in 2011. So if you don't want to own gold but aren't sure you want to own a miner either, Royal Gold should be on your radar.

Tough choices

So there you have them: three of the top gold stocks to buy now. This trio provides you with a spectrum of different ways to benefit from the price moves of the precious metal, from a direct investment in gold, to a miner, to a financier that gets paid in gold and silver. If you are looking at gold, one of these stocks should fit the bill. Now I happen to be a fan of dividends, particularly ones that grow through good times and bad. Which, of course, means that Royal Gold is my hands down favorite here.

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Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.