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Mint forges a new path to cash in on gold fever

OTTAWA and TORONTO -- The Royal Canadian Mint is capitalizing on the gold rush by offering a new bullion investment that is raising questions among some who staked their claims first.

Best known for its coins and bullion, the Mint is tapping into the growing popularity of bullion by delving into the crowded market for exchange-traded gold with a $250-million issue of gold receipts that will trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

The Mint's exchange-traded receipts, or ETRs, would compete directly with several popular gold and precious metals funds when they go on sale in late November.

Unlike most existing gold funds, however, the Mint is giving investors a chance to swap their investment for real gold - coins or bars - rather than just cash, plus relatively low fees.

"This new program will build on our reputation ... as a world-class custodian of precious metals," said Ian Bennett, chief executive officer of the Mint.

Holders of ETRs own the gold directly, and can redeem the receipts for gold, if they choose. Investors in exchange-traded funds, in contrast, typically own units or shares in a fund, which holds the gold.

The Mint's offering appears to be a move to leverage its good name in a business that has been booming. Gold briefly hit a record $1,900 (U.S.) an ounce earlier this year, but has since fallen to near $1,600.

Som Seif, CEO of ETF provider Claymore Investments Inc., said the Mint's gold product is a good move in giving Canadian investors more choice, but suggested there is not a level playing field for all industry players.

"They [Mint] don't have to go through the same regulatory proceedings that we have to go through," said Mr. Seif, whose firms has listed gold bullion ETFs. "... I don't think that they should get away with something that we can't just because they are the government."

Mint officials said it's a natural extension of the storage and custodial business it has been in for 100 years at a time when gold products of all kinds are in high demand.

"All we're doing here is bringing it directly to the investor," said Steve Higgins, senior manager of ETR compliance. "We're still seeing significant demand for gold."

He acknowledged that some investors may feel more secure buying gold investments from a Crown corporation rather than private fund companies.

The Mint posted a profit of $33.8-million in 2010 on revenue of $2.2-billion. Bullion sales accounted for roughly half its revenue.

Dan Hallett, a fund analyst at HighView Financial Group, expects the Mint's offering will attract a lot of retail investor interest in Canada.

"The fact that this is issued by the Mint - basically a Crown Corporation - is going to have some appeal," Mr. Hallett said. "When you are buying gold through a vehicle sponsored indirectly by the government of Canada, people just perceive more safety with that - even it if is going to be as volatile as any other gold fund."

But Canadian firms that have listed gold exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or closed-end funds can't be too thrilled with the Mint jumping into the market because it is exempted from much of the paperwork and related costs of filing a prospectus and other documents, Mr. Hallett said. "Its offering is not vetted by the regulators. It appears that the Mint has an easier road."

The Mint said it will charge a 0.35 per cent per year service fee on the ETRs. Gold ETFs, by comparison, typically charge service fees of 0.5 per cent or more. There's also a 3-per-cent entry cost on the initial offering.

The U.S.-dollar-denominated iShares Gold Trust ETF, which is interlisted on the U.S. and Canadian exchanges, charges an even lower 0.25-per-cent fee.

Investors who opt to redeem the Mint's ETRs for real gold would pay a significant premium, including fees and delivery charges, according to a public offering sheet issued by lead underwriters TD Securities Inc. and National Bank Financial Inc.

The ETRs are redeemable on the 15th of every month after an initial three-month mandatory holding period. They are being offered in Canadian and U.S. dollars. The Mint said the ETRs are aimed at both individual and institutional investors, but are not approved for sale in the U.S.

With files from reporter Tim Kiladze.

© 2007 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved.

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