Gold ETFs Get Some Love, While Biotechs Get a Beat Down

By Tom LydonETFsFOXBusiness

The equities market and stock exchange-traded funds (ETFs) just wrapped up an impressive recovery to what was one of the worst starts to a new year.

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While the stock markets gyrated and clawed back from the earlier plunge, there were some areas that shined through the muck. Leading the markets higher over the first quarter, the PureFunds ISE Junior Silver ETF (NYSE:SILJ) gained 71.7%, iShares MSCI Global Gold Miners ETF (NYSE:RING) increased 56.2% and Sprott Junior Gold Miners ETF (NYSE:SGDJ) rose 49.4%.

SILJ tracks a group of junior or small-cap silver miners. RING follows a cap-weighted index of global gold miners, so it leans toward larger gold producers. SGDJ, on the other hand, focuses on junior or small-cap gold miners from the U.S. and Canada.

Precious metals miners have been the standout performers of the first quarter as gold bullion strengthened on safe-haven demand and a more dovish Federal Reserve outlook.

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During the start of the year when the equities markets registered slipped into a correction, investors piled into gold hard assets as a safe store of wealth. Once equities started rebounding, traders maintained their gold positions on the depreciating U.S. dollar and smaller interest rate hike outlook from the Fed, betting that precious metals will help hedge against a more volatile outlook.

Meanwhile, gold miners, which have been among the worst performing assets over recent years, staged a rally on the strengthened gold market, even outperforming bullion prices, which jumped 17% year-to-date.

Looking ahead, gold and the precious metals miners could have more room to run as an ongoing low-rate environment, both in the U.S. and overseas where some central banks are pushing negative-interest rates, could continue to drive investment demand for gold as a safer store of wealth. The low-rate environment helps diminish the opportunity cost of holding gold assets. Specifically, as low-rates help prop up fixed-income assets, bonds yields are falling and some sovereign debt appears overbought. Alternatively, gold assets look like an attractive alternative to hedge against volatility down the road, especially after underperforming in recent years.

On the other end of the ETF spectrum, the worst non-leveraged ETF of the first quarter was the BioShares Biotechnology Clinical Trials Fund (Nasdaq:BBC), which tracks potential up-and-coming biotechnology companies that are in the clinical trials stage, declined 34.4%. The iPath Bloomberg Natural Gas Subindex Total Return ETN (NYSE:GAZ), which holds natural gas futures, decreased 31.9% in the first quarter. Lastly, the ALPS Medical Breakthroughs ETF (NYSE:SBIO), which focuses on small- and mid-cap companies that have one or more drugs in either Phase II or Phase III U.S. FDA clinical trials, dropped 31.0%.


The healthcare sector, specifically the biotechnology sub-sector, was the worst performing area of the S&P 500. Biotechnology stocks have plunged 20% into a bear market this year and have not recovered even after the recent market rebound. The high-flying growth sector has enjoyed years of outperformance, but the recent bout of global volatility has shaken investment confidence in the growth category, especially during an ongoing so-called earnings recession. Consequently, growth stocks have lagged behind the value category, which has led the rally so far this year.

Merger and acquisition activity, which surged to a record in 2015 and helped bolster biotech prices, has waned over the first three months of the year. Biotechs may no longer enjoy the added benefits of mergers this year. According to global deal tracker Mergermarket, global M&A activity has fallen 24% over the first quarter year-over-year.

Moreover, biotechs and pharmaceuticals have come under greater scrutiny in this election cycle as Presidential candidates have put a spotlight on some of the industries' overpriced products. We may continue to expect volatility in biotechnology names as rhetoric heats up the closer we get to election day.


While the natural gas-related ETF has rebounded in recent weeks, natural gas prices have only slightly recovered after hitting 17-year lows. The shale-oil boom in the U.S. has helped create a glut in natural gas supply, and despite the fall-off in oil prices, shale oil producers continued to pump. In addition, on the demand side, the El Nino weather phenomenon has fueled an abnormally warm winter across the East Coast, which diminished traditional heating demand for many households.

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