For many investors, gold has never shone more brightly. But for some, buying bullion has been a costly mistake, reports Karyn Scherer

At the age of 70-something, and with a reasonably successful career as a business owner behind him, Peter Fuller admits he probably should have known better.

Like many other investors, however, he was sufficiently spooked by the global financial crisis that he decided to invest around half his life's savings in the international market for precious metals.

He initially dealt with a company called the Commonwealth Precious Metals Group (CPMG), which is owned by an expat American who now lives in New Zealand. But towards the end of 2009, he was persuaded to end his relationship with CPMG and deal directly with one of its brokers based in the United States.

Advertisement

According to Fuller, Gus Elijah Geldman - who he knows as "Eli" - is "the most plausible American you'd ever talk to".

His initial impression was that Geldman was "a lovely guy", and Fuller agreed to give him more than US$180,000. But only a short time later, Geldman called him to say there had been a problem with the investment, and Fuller was likely to make a significant loss.

"He said: 'Look, the wheels have fallen off things' or something to that effect. He said the company we were invested through had over-leveraged and the authorities had struck them off the list of certified operators because they were no longer solvent."

Geldman told him he would be able to salvage a small amount from the investment, "but not a heck of a lot". Fuller was nevertheless stunned when he received back just US$6000.

"You don't know what you can do. I got into him and all that sort of stuff but the next thing he couldn't be contacted ... I was very angry, but at my age I'm so helpless."

Peter Fuller is not his real name, as he is reluctant to reveal his true identity. "I'm pretty well-known in this community, so I wouldn't particularly like to have my name out there," he explains.

Another investor with a similar tale of woe also insists on remaining anonymous. The Nelson man says he is still struggling to accept what happened just over a year ago.

The man is adamant he made it clear to Geldman he wanted his money to be invested "very conservatively", due to bad experiences with previous investments. So he was furious when two months' later he was told he had lost everything - around $130,000 - due to aggressive leveraging.

Advertisement

He admits that, in hindsight, investing such a large portion of his savings in a single asset was a particularly silly thing to do. And he also admits he got greedy.

"My advice to other people is don't do it. It's too highly speculative ... Speculative trading is for people whose life it is, not for Mums and Dads like us. If you can't afford to be without your money, you shouldn't do it."

However, anecdotal evidence would appear to indicate that plenty of "Mums and Dads" are flouting that advice. Thanks to continuing uncertainty about the global economy and a soaring gold price, the market for bullion and other precious metals has taken off in New Zealand over the past year, with many dealers reporting record sales.

New Zealand Mint's head bullion dealer, Mike O'Kane, confirms the market has gone "absolutely nuts". But he is also keen to distinguish between those who are buying gold coins or bars and hiding them in their sock drawer, and those who are dabbling in leveraged investments.

"The golden rule is 'he who golds the gold, holds the value'," he suggests. "If you're not taking possession of it, then you need to do some homework on the company you're buying it through."

He is reluctant to suggest than any of his local rivals are cowboys. "But there are certainly plenty overseas," he chuckles.

Commonwealth Precious Metals Group no longer has anything to do with Geldman, or with the Tempest Group, the company with whom Geldman was then working.

However, many more New Zealand investors will have dealt with Geldman through another New Zealand company, Grace Holdings NZ Ltd, which trades as Bullion Buyer.

The company was set up less than a year ago, but has already managed to establish a fairly high profile, thanks to the significant amounts it has spent on television and radio advertising.

Investors who bothered to check out its website, bullionbuyer.co.nz, would have learned that Geldman was the company's "head trader" and "asset allocation specialist". In fact, until this week, he was its only trader.

The website claims Geldman has 20 years' experience "as a frontline financial professional" and decided to join the company "after a successful run at the Tempest Group" and "with the intent of continuing in the winning tradition and high standard that has been his hallmark throughout his professional career".

It does not mention that seven weeks ago, Geldman was charged with fraud by federal authorities in the United States.

According to the Florida Sun Sentinel, Geldman and another man, Walter Jay Lippman, have been charged with "participating in a conspiracy", including forging signatures and falsely identifying themselves as a securities broker and a "comptroller of a legitimate company" to entice investors to give them money.

The pair are said to have falsely advertised in USA Today that they could deliver a 12 per cent annual return on investors' money. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison.

Bullion Buyer's website also fails to mention that Tempest Group issued a disclaimer in April this year claiming that Geldman "was never offered any kind of partnership with Tempest Group and never will be in the future". According to the disclaimer: "His association with the company has been terminated due to a breach of contract".

Even a cursory search of the internet rings other alarm bells about Geldman's background. There is, for example, the Florida website that publishes mugshots of almost everyone, it seems, who has ever been arrested in the state. According to the website, a somewhat slimmer Geldman was arrested in 2002 and charged with "FTA/grand theft auto" - known here as stealing cars and failing to turn up in court.

US public records also show that in 1994, Geldman was censured and had his registration as a broker revoked for failing to pay a fine of US$2764. According to the US Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the fine related to a complaint that he had "acted in the capacity as a registered representative" without having been approved by the National Association of Securities Dealers.

These days, Geldman claims to be an associate preacher for the Resurrection Life Worship Center, which appears to be based in Louisiana. His Facebook page is in the name of "Minister Geldman". And his profile on another social network, for black preachers, does indeed hint at past mistakes he may have made. "After many years on the wrong side, God called me to his ministry and I am grateful," it says.

His wife's MySpace page makes a similar statement. According to her profile, Valerie Geldman, 27, married her husband almost three years ago. "I love to tell people that I am a minister's wife," she writes. "If you knew us when we were in the world you would have never guessed that we be where we are."

According to the two New Zealand investors, Geldman also tried to sell them beach-front properties in Miami.

"He reckoned, and he was probably right too, these properties were fire sales at the height of the recession, going for a song - 18 per cent of their true value," Fuller recalls. "He was very persuasive and it sounded damn good, but I couldn't see what the point was of having a property over there."

The Nelson investor admits he was also tempted, but his wife scotched the idea.

Although Bullion Buyer's New Zealand website is registered in his name, Geldman is neither a director nor a shareholder in Grace Holdings.

It is his wife, Valerie Geldman, who owns half its shares and who until this week was a director of the company. The other shares are owned by a trustee company linked to two West Auckland lawyers, Simon Bratley and Bernie Allen. Bratley is also a director of Grace Holdings.

When initially contacted about the fraud charge, Bratley said he understood it was a different person with the same name. But when the Business contacted Geldman in Florida to clarify things, he confirmed the situation.

According to Geldman, he turned himself in to the authorities after becoming a Christian eight years ago. "I let them know what was going on and basically for the better part of seven years nothing happened ... At this stage of the game from what my attorneys are telling me, God willing it will be some form of agreement to pay restitution over time."

He admitted to having led a "crazy life", but insisted he had voluntarily surrendered his registration as a broker, and denied any responsibility for the losses experienced by the two investors who spoke to the Business. Both men knew exactly what they were getting into, he insisted.

He said the initial idea for Bullion Buyer came through his links with an Auckland man, Robert Kairua, who he met through his church activities.

Kairua is a Cook Islands-born accountant who has previously worked for Coopers & Lybrand, and who in 2006 bought into the North Shore financial planning business Wealthy & Wise. Kairua knew Bratley through the legal firm Davenports West.

"I brought the idea to Mr Kairua and Mr Bratley and they put together what is now Bullion Buyer," said Geldman. "I had no idea about New Zealand or anything in New Zealand. I just looked at it as a blessing."

When asked why he was neither a shareholder nor a director of Grace Holdings, Geldman said he did not want to breach a non-compete agreement he had with Tempest Group. He also said that he would resign from Bullion Buyer if that's what his partners wanted. On Tuesday this week, that's exactly what happened.

A current Bullion Buyer customer, Michael Cushman, believes commercial rivalry may be partly to blame for mud-slinging that appears to have been going on behind the scenes between Geldman and his former business associates. In any case, Cushman was also persuaded to move with Geldman when he left Tempest to set up the new company.

Cushman, who is the director of an Auckland pharmaceutical firm, has about 10 per cent of his savings in precious metals, and has decided not to leverage the investment by more than three-and-a-half times.

Although he admits to being "a bunny in the field", he says he has so far been impressed by his dealings with Geldman. "Having dealt with him over a period of time I think he is essentially very honest. That's been my conclusion."

And Bullion Buyer appears determined to weather the storm that Geldman's resignation may cause.

On Tuesday, Simon Bratley told the Business that Bullion Buyer had terminated Geldman's contract "by mutual agreement". Robert Kairua has replaced Valerie Geldman as the other director and discussions are continuing with the "Geldman family" about their shareholding in the business, says Bratley.

"The long-term aim is they will not have a shareholding, but obviously that just takes a little bit longer to deal with."

According to Bratley, the company's website is about to be revamped, and he is in the process of hiring a new bullion trader.

Its office has recently moved from the ASB Centre to the Vero Centre, and its advertising will continue as planned, he says.

Bratley and Kairua also intend to continue holding seminars around the country, hoping to persuade investors that gold is too good an opportunity to ignore. They have already held one such seminar in Tauranga, and another is due to be held in Queenstown next week.

Interestingly, the company's most successful advertisements so far have been on Prime TV, during screenings of Downton Abbey. "That was on a Tuesday night, and on Wednesdays we got lots of queries," says Bratley.

While he admits he was "shocked and disappointed" Geldman did not tell the company about his chequered history, Bratley insists that all its customers' funds are safe.

Geldman did not have any authority to deal with clients' money directly, "so there is nothing he could have done apart from not correctly operate the stop loss account", he says. He also notes that Bullion Buyer does not allow clients to leverage their investments by more than three times, and that a British company, Berkeley Futures, handles all its paperwork.

In less than a year, the company has already broken even, despite its expensive advertising, he says. "We're getting more and more people, because gold is just one of those things that is big news."

It is perhaps ironic that Weekend Herald columnist Mary Holm notes there is something about precious metals, and gold in particular, that seems to invoke an almost religious fervour in some people. Of all the topics she deals with in her column, Holm says it is gold that seems to bring out the worst in people.

"Some of them can be quite nasty. I suspect some of the anger comes from the fact that they have personally put quite a bit in gold, and don't want somebody saying: 'Don't leap on the bandwagon too'," she says. That said, the gold price is set on the world market "so what's said in the Herald isn't going to make any difference", she notes.

There is, indeed, a mildly funny presentation easily found on the internet that describes "9 Ways That Gold is a Religion Masquerading As An Asset Class". And there are certainly plenty of websites, newsletters, and blogs that encourage conspiracy theories, and slam the "mainstream media" for their failure to grasp the fact that an economic apocalypse is nigh.

Former Mercer Investments head Louis Boulanger appears to be a local disciple of this school of thought. "The level of public ignorance on the death throes of the current monetary system is astonishing," Boulanger wrote in his newsletter to clients in May 2009. "This is part of the plan, of course, because the monetary elite control not only the financial system but also the news media, the publishing industry, and the educational system."

In fact, bullion seems to be popping up a lot in the "mainstream media" these days. It was reported last year, for example, that a bankrupt living in Hamilton was found with millions of dollars worth of gold and silver bullion in his home.

Former Telecom head Theresa Gattung has also undoubtedly given the industry a boost, by telling The Australian last month that she had taken her 2007 golden handshake from the company quite literally, by cashing in her Telecom shares to buy gold bullion.

Gattung's huge bet on gold was noted by the Business at the time. In February 2008, she again hinted at her decision, when asked to name a single wish for the coming year. Her wish: "Gold at US$1000 an ounce."

Given that it spiked at nearly US$1900 an ounce this week, you can only assume she has other goals in mind for 2012.

Silver, palladium and platinum tend to have a much more volatile price than gold, due to the fact that they are also used as industrial metals.

Although gold has some industrial uses, its price is much more closely linked to public sentiment. While it has, indeed, mostly proven a rewarding long-term investment, there have been some wild swings in its price since former US President Richard Nixon stopped the US dollar from being convertible into gold in 1971.

In inflation-adjusted terms, for example, gold has yet to return to the price it hit in 1980.

New Zealand investors need to bear in mind that they are also taking a bet on the value of the New Zealand dollar against the greenback. In US dollar terms, the price of gold has increased by a whopping 560 per cent over the past decade. However, in kiwi dollar terms its growth has been around half that.

Some local investors are currently betting that the kiwi will soon drop, allowing them to make a windfall in gold. But it goes without saying that this is also a gamble.

Whether the price of gold will continue to climb is a matter of almost perennial debate, but across the Tasman, mining companies are continuing to make hay while the sun is still shining so brightly.

"The recent spike in the gold price has certainly drawn attention to the industry but it is the sustained, longer-term, upward trend ... that has prompted companies to reevaluate older deposits and also explore for new ones," industry consultant Sandra Close told MarketWatch last week.

There are, however, some high-profile bears such as celebrity economists Nouriel Roubini and Dennis Gartman who are arguing - admittedly not for the first time - that gold has got rather bubbly.

A sudden plunge in the price by more than 5 per cent last month was its biggest drop in nominal dollars in 30 years. Although it has since returned to near-record levels, Mike O'Kane, for one, is convinced it will continue to be volatile for a while yet.

"As we see the gold price surge we're going to see people taking a profit," he says. "As different functions are put in place to try and protect the US economy and the eurozone we'll see surges and drops because of that."

It could be said that there is, in fact, too much information available about gold as an investment. For inexperienced investors it is worth bearing in mind the very sane advice offered by the Investopedia website.

Precious metals provide a "useful and effective" means of diversifying a portfolio, it suggests. However, the trick to achieving success with them is to know your goals and risk profile before jumping in.

"The volatility of precious metals can be harnessed to accumulate wealth, but left unchecked it can also lead to ruin," it warns.

There are at least two New Zealand investors - and around 1600 people who put their faith in the now-defunct Goldcorp more than 20 years ago - who would surely agree with that.