There are two key markets in which the prices of gold and silver are determined.
1. Over-the-Counter (OTC)
The OTC market consists of traders dealing with other traders on a one-on-one basis. It operates much like the internet – it is just a network of traders independently dealing with each other 24 hours a day. OTC is generally meant to refer to professional/corporate entities trading 400oz gold bars (and 1000oz silver bars), usually for settlement in London. However, when you buy a coin from a bullion dealer, you are also doing an OTC deal.
OTC trading is done on the telephone or via a dealer's proprietary trading platform software. Just like your transaction with a coin dealer, the amount dealt and the spot price agreed is not public.
To facilitate price discovery in what is an otherwise opaque market, precious metal dealers often use a service like Reuters or Bloomberg as an indicator of where the spot price is. This spot price is updated by the bullion desks of the big banks and is, in effect, a bulletin board or forum where these banks can publish their prices. However, unlike a stock market, it is not a commitment to deal at those prices (but generally one can).
It is therefore hard to "pin down" the OTC spot price, compared to a public exchange.
2. Futures Exchanges
Futures markets are public, regulated exchanges where the price for delivery of gold or silver at various dates into the future is traded. The largest and most influential market is the US COMEX market.
Often the current (or nearest) future prices quoted as a spot price of physical gold. Technically this is not correct as it is a price for gold or silver to settle in the future whereas the "spot price" is the price for immediate settlement. However, in countries with futures exchanges dealers often base their price for immediate delivery of gold or silver off their local futures market, so from a retail customer's point of view a futures prices is effectively the spot price.
It is important to note that futures and spot prices are related to each other and as such are kept in alignment by arbitrage traders who look at the relative costs of borrowing cash and gold (and other factors) and will sell futures and buy OTC spot (or vice versa) if they see too much divergence between the prices.
There has been some debate as to whether US futures markets or the London OTC spot markets drive the price. This analysis concludes that it is not fixed and changes over time, even though the London OTC market is much larger than COMEX in terms of ounces traded.
A Bullion Dealer's Spot Price
So how do bullion dealers selling to customer set their spot price? They do so by considering the following factors into account:
- The spot/futures price may change in the time between committing to a price with their customer and executing a deal with their OTC counterparty or futures market broker.
- OTC and futures markets are wholesale markets (trading in "lots" of 1,000oz and 100oz of gold, respectively) whereas a dealer's retail customers will be buying in much smaller amounts. This means it may take some time before they have accumulated enough ounces to execute a deal, during which the OTC/futures price will change.
- The dealer may not be quoted the Reuters or Bloomberg screen price when trying to lock in a price in the OTC market, especially when the market is moving quickly and bullion banks are not updating their prices into those information services quickly enough.
- For futures trading, the dealer will be charged brokerage fees. For both futures and OTC trading there is also general costs of employing dealers and settling trades.
The way bullion dealers manage the above factors is to add a margin (or buffer) to the spot or futures price they see quoted. How much they add and how often they will change their spot prices depends on how volatile the wholesale price is and how much buying or selling their clients are doing. This changes dynamically during the day and will also vary between each bullion dealer. Note that this spot price margin is in addition to any fabrication premium.
The result is that you will find each bullion dealer quoting different spot prices. This can be confusing to first time investors who are used to, for example, a single price for a company's stock on a single exchange. It often leads to questions about whether they are being quoted a "fair" price.
The only way to know if you are getting a fair price is to do what bullion dealers themselves have to do, which is to shop around and see who is offering the best price at that time and take it. In doing so, you become part of the huge, opaque precious metal market “network” of over-the-counter traders. Good luck!