Gold, that mysterious and seductive metal, has been enjoying a speculative boom, the vigor of which is surprising officials and baffling the experts. During the long slide of the dollar last year, the price of gold rose from about $132 an ounce to $242 on Oct. 31, the day before the United States launched a successful dollar-rescue program.
That rise of 83 percent was followed by a dip to$193 on Nov. 30 as the dollar-support program took effect, and the market anticipated larger sales by the U.S. Treasury, part of the dollar-boosting program.
But gold is nothing if not volatile. Despite the continued strength of the dollar, the price of gold has boomed, topping the Oct. 31 high by a wide margin. At the close of the week, it was about $275 an ounce, up 42 percent from Nov. 30, 1978.
To put it another way, the price of gold has more than doubled since the beginning of 1978, leading the way in a general commodities boom. It could be no other way, for to make speculation in gold profitable, it must increase in price more than other assets. Uniquely, gold pays no dividends, and is costly to store and insure. Any "income" must be derived from appreciation.
"This is a kind of madness," gold expert Edward M. Bernstein said in an interview. "It could end up with severe losses for many people."
Charles R. Stahl, publisher of Green's Commodity Letter, said in a telephone interview that "there is now a golden opportunity to go short. The next big move for gold will be on the downside."
What is behind soaring gold prices? Bernstein and other experts attribute the boom to the disturbing worldwide inflation, and a sense of instability that makes investors and speculators suspicious of all currencies. The jumps in the price of oil have created financial uncertainty and have fed the search for a monetary refuge.
In the current milieu, it is worth noting that the dollar has held its own. Not only has the dollar recently not been depreciating against gold, but it has been appreciating against the Swiss franc and German Mark - traditionally strong currencies.
"In this period of inflation, people look for a capital asset that has the chance of outdistancing the rise in prices," one official said. "When you get past housing and other real estate, there's only gold that looks attractive."
"Swiss francs and German marks used to be so-called islands of stability. But when they go down, there's only gold," said a U.S. government expert.
Green's Commodity Market letter observes: "The current upmove in gold is spearheaded by many foreign buyers, who for the first time in a while are getting out of the Swiss franc, the German mark and the Japanese yen, all of which . . . are declining against the dollar.
"Thus, the purchase of gold, which is a dollar commodity (i.e., gold prices are set in dollars), gives them a double edge: Not only are they making a profit on the appreciation of gold in terms of the dollar, but also on the appreciation of the dollar in terms of the other currencies."
Putting this another way, the price of gold has appreciated more against Swiss francs and other currencies than against dollars - totally the reverse of experience in other gold-price booms, when the dollar moved opposite to gold. "This is fantastic, almost unbelievable," one long-time market observer said.
For many speculators, gold has advantages over real estate in an unstable world, especially for those "who want assets that are either more hidden or portable," one official suggested.
U.S. government officials believe that much of the recent buying has come from the Middle East and from other private buyers upset by political instability in the Middle East.
But all insiders stress that gold moves in a relatively thin market, and prices gyrate dramatically on relatively small sales. The dollar volume on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day can amount to more than sales on all world gold markets for months. The entire annual volume of gold production, some 40 million ounces, has a market value of only about $10 billion at the current price level.
Another possible factor behind the gold rise sometimes cited by market analysts is the belief - which is inaccurate - that the new European Monetary System is backed by gold.
It is true that a number of countries have revalued their gold reserves at a market-related price instead of the old official $42 price. And it is true that by including repriced gold in their reserves, EMS members have liberalized the credit base for loans within the system.
U.S. officials say they do not regard this as "remonetizing" gold. But speculators may conclude that, however defined, a larger role for gold in the EMS provides some kind of floor for the open market price.
Yet another underlying strong feature in the market is that the U.S. Treasury, pleased by the recovery of the dollar since Nov. 1, cut the rate of its gold sales in half to 750,000 ounces a month. Coincidentally, the International Monetary Fund, which also sells gold on regular basis, trimmed its offerings slightly from 470,000 to 440,000 ouces a month.
The Soviet Union, often a major supply souce, also has been reducing its sales of gold, presumably because less foreign exchange has been necessary to meet balance-of-payments requirements. And South African production recently has been reduced slightly.
With demand for industrial and arts use sizable and speculative demand for gold strong, why do experts such as Stahl and Bernstein warn about the down side? First of all, it should be noted that some other observers still recommend buying gold despite the present record price. Predictions of a $300-an-ounce level are common.
Stahl scoffs at the notion of $300-an-ounce gold. "You'd have to crazy to try to make $20 or $25 on a commodity at this level," he said.
These cautions are cited: First, worldwide economic slowdown - even a recession - is forecast by many within the next year. Most analysts believe that stocks and other securities would benefit from a recession, assuming that it helps to curb inflation. If other capital assets start to go up, then gold may be less attractive. "Gold moves opposite to the stock market and all other real assets," said one expert flatly.
Second, the industrial and arts absorption of gold appears to be highly sensitive to price. During the 1978 price boost from $132 to $242 an ounce, the amount of gold used in making official coins, replicas and medals fell by nearly 20 percent. In Asia, where hoarding in small bars is popular, such activity fell by more than 60 percent.
According to one estimate, gold stocks held by speculators may be 10 to 15 times the annual consumption for industrial and arts purposes. Thus, a slide in prices, once started, could be preciptate.
For the moment, the boom probably is being sustained by small as well as large speculators. The small hoarders buy South African Krugerrands and other coins, which move with the market - and which, moreover, can be seen, displayed and touched. Soon this mania will be fed as well by half-ounce and one-ounce U.S. medallions, which will form part of the monthly Treasury sales. Gold futures trading on the Chicago and New York futures markets also has whetted buying interest. CAPTION: Picture, Gold bars: The boom "is a kind of madnesss." UPI