Gold stars

Each month we bring you the opinions of the managers of the funds most likely to be selected for pension portfolios through external fund links or Sipps. This month - GRAHAM BIRCH\'S BLACKROCK ML GOLD & GENERAL FUND

Gold mining shares tend to be less correlated to other forms of equities, making BlackRock’s Merrill Lynch Gold & General Fund particularly suitable for diversification purposes in a larger portfolio.

BlackRock’s ML Gold & General Fund is a specialist unit trust, which aims to achieve long-term capital growth by investing in gold mining and precious metal-related shares, and was one of the first UK-authorised unit trusts specialising in such investments.

Performance has been supported by two basic principals; the supply and demand of gold bullion. On the supply side, gold mine production has been flat or declining since 2001 – the reasons for this date back to the 1990s, when the price of gold was kept low by aggressive producer hedging, central bank selling, and record performance in the equities markets.

This led many companies to cease new exploration and reduce spending on existing assets, as prices had sunk to levels at which further investment was unjustified. Between 1997 and 2002, exploration expenditure fell by nearly 80 per cent, and although this figure has recovered somewhat since 2003, the long lead times for discovery, development and production still mean that new supply is hard to come by.

Demand for gold bullion has seen significant growth in recent years. The flip side has seen demand levels increase rapidly in recent years. Central banks in Asia and the Middle East, well known for storing US dollar reserves, have started to diversify away from the “greenback”. This has positive implications for stronger gold prices going forward, particularly as sentiment to the US dollar remains generally weak.

Meanwhile, physical jewellery demand remains a key driver, while at the same time investment demand for gold has been persistently strong, as evidenced by the popularity and growth of gold Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).

Together with the view that gold investments are a hedge against inflation and geopolitical tensions, the supply and demand fundamentals are increasingly favourable for gold bullion prices and, therefore, BlackRock’s ML Gold & General Fund.

Compelling fundamentals leave a positive outlook for BlackRock’s Gold & General Fund. Gold bullion started the New Year in spectacular fashion, hitting US$868 per troy ounce to smash the previous high of US$850, which was set in January 1980.

Putting today’s gold price into perspective, it is worth noting that US$850/oz in 1980 would be the equivalent to over US$2300/oz today after adjusting for inflation. Indeed, we would suggest that a gold price in excess of US$1,000/oz may be required in order to stabilise or reverse the trend of flat-to-declining global gold mine supply.

As you would expect, the related equities have reacted positively to the new gold price highs and BlackRock’s ML Gold & General Fund has already made a strong start to the year. However, while 2008 has arrived in style, we continue to believe that the highs achieved are underpinned by compelling fundamentals and that significant upside potential remains in these markets.

In addition to managing BlackRock’s ML Gold & General Fund, I also lead the BlackRock Natural Resources Team, which manages over US$45 billion for a diverse range of investors.

Over three and five years to 31 December 2007, cumulative Fund returns are a staggering 150.1 per cent and 202.6 per cent, while the annual-ised returns register at a remarkable 35.7 per cent and 24.8 per cent respectively.

Graham BirchThe Adviser Fund Index (AFI) is made up of the recommended portfolios of a panel of leading UK financial advisers and is based entirely on the funds those firms have actually recommended to clients.

The three AFI indices, aggressive, balanced and cautious, are intended to represent an ideal portfolio of funds for an individual in his 20s, 40s and 50s who is saving for a pension age

of 65.

Graham Birch manages BlackRock’s ML Gold & General Fund and heads BlackRock’s natural resources team, which manages over $45 billion.