It is not a good time to be a gold bug. Or a silver bug, for that matter, if such a critter exists.
But it is even worse to be an investor who swallowed the anodynes of the silver and gold prophets and bought precious metals in late 1979 or early 1980 believing that gold and silver are effective hedges against inflation or a store of some sort of value in a time of international tension.
Silver and gold investors have taken serious beatings in the last year, and the later those investors decided to cash in on rising prices, the more serious was the damage they suffered.
The central banks that owned gold at $35 an ounce in 1971 -- when the price was set by central banks -- are doing quite well at $487 an ounce today. Those investors who squirreled it away before July 1979, when the price topped $300 an ounce (or even by early November 1979, when it was below $400) have little to complain about, either.
But the mass of investors who were sucked into the craze in November or December of 1979 or January of 1980 have learned some painful lessons. The simplest one Sir Isaac Newton postulated several hundred years ago: What goes up must come down.
Yet the ultimate lesson of metals investing is more complicated than Newtonian physics (in its ramifications for investors, at least).
Not only do metals prices rise and fall in response to events that are largely out of the control of the investor, the metals themselves -- the investment -- yield no income and cost money to store. If the investor borrowed money to buy the metals, not only has he or she seen the value of the investment shrink, he or she has seen the costs of keeping that investment rise markedly as interest rates twice have risen to 20 percent or more during the past 12 months.
Those who argue passionately for gold as an investment -- the bugs, as they are called -- contend that human beings always have placed a high value on the metal, even if its industrial uses are somewhat limited and its nutritive value nonexistent.
They are right. The Magi brought gold. The Pharoahs do not sleep encased in aluminum. The Mesabi Range's vast iron ore deposits did not strike the human fancy; the hint of a gold find at Sutter's Mill did. Even oil, undoubtedly one of the world's most precious commodities, commonly is called liquid gold.
And gold adherents also are correct when they note that stock prices rise and fall almost as inexplicably as gold prices.
But stocks are an investment in a corporation whose production and profit abilities are open to public investigation and also are an investment that more often than not yields income (dividends) in addition to price appreciation (or depreciation).
Psychology always plays a role in markets -- from gold to stocks to sugar. But in no other market, including silver, does whim and psychology play as great a role as in the gold market.
Merely recall the expert explanations of the gold -- and to a lesser extent, the silver -- price surge of late 1979 and early 1980.
Many contended that investors converted paper assets into gold to prevent others from seizing their wealth the way President Carter froze Iranian deposits. Others saw the Soviet Afghanistan invasion as the catalyst, because Middle Eastern princes felt that the shock waves would topple their regimes and gold was a safer haven than bank accounts -- and more portable, too, despite the relative weights of a checkbook and a gold bar. Still others cited an increasing discontent with inflation among many individuals who believed that precious metals were a better long-run store of value.
Look at the record. The Soviets are still in Afghanistan. A Polish crisis threatens Soviet bloc stability. Inflation continues apace. Yet gold prices fall.
The president unfroze Iranian assets, but long before that gold prices began to decline.
The stock market may rise or fall on this or that stock, but in the end its performance seems to ride on performance.The gold market's record is as elusive as La Giaconda's smile.
But the metal bugs persist. Even those metals analysts, who study gold and silver more dispassionately than their bug brethren, argue that after a "bear" phase that might last until 1982, metals again will become a good investment.
If a good investment is one that rises after it is purchased and falls after it is sold, then the analysts might be right.
For the investor, metals are an avenue best left to the bugs and doomsayers.
Try bartering bullion for baked beans if World War III occurs.