What is the Baker gold ploy all about? When Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, without advance notice, suggested using the price of gold as a "an analytical tool" that might provide an early warning of inflation, he touched off a wave of uncertainty and anxiety.

What Baker told a meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund two weeks ago was that the United States would consider the use of a "basket" of commodity prices, including gold, as an indicator in an international surveillance exercise aimed at more stable international currency levels.

Does that mean Baker plans a return to a "gold standard" for money, under which a dollar will be worth a certain amount of gold? The answer is no.

Does his proposal portend new importance for gold in the monetary system? The answer is yes, if Baker can sell the "analytical tool" idea to the Europeans and Japanese -- a proposition that is uncertain.

Would it be good or bad for the global economy? On that, opinion is sharply divided.

Those answers are distilled from interviews with and statements by senior administration and Federal Reserve Board officials, including Baker, Chairman Alan Greenspan and other experts here and abroad.

Five reactions to Baker's initiative can be identified.

The first reaction is puzzlement, coupled with wonderment if Baker is really serious about giving gold new respectability. "I'm just a bit puzzled ... and I'm not sure how rigorously it's being intellectually developed," said John Smith, the British "shadow" chancellor of the Exchequer, after a briefing with Treasury Assistant Secretary David Mulford. Smith, a likely Cabinet officer in any future Labor government, was reflecting a common skepticism, even though he endorses Baker's embracing of a managed -- rather than floating -- international exchange rate system.

The second reaction is that the use of a commodities index as a litmus test for incipient inflation -- if that is what Baker wants -- is an old idea, and one that has been discredited. "It's useless," says Brookings economist Edward M. Bernstein. He points out that gold has fluctuated wildly since 1980, more because of political than economic factors. A better guide to potential inflation, Bernstein and other economists say, is the price of finished goods and the unit cost of labor.

The third reaction is one of ecstasy from "gold bugs" such as Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who assume that Baker is pressing for adoption of a gold standard, in which the dollar would be backed by gold, and the growth of the money supply would be determined by gold. Lawrence A. Kudlow, chief economist at Bear, Stearns & Co., said in a glowing tribute: "The proposal to link currency values to a gold-commodity price index provides a reentry for the discipline of gold into the world monetary system."

The fourth reaction is one of fear, from those who think that Kemp and Kudlow are correctly interpreting Baker's speech as a step on the road to a gold standard. Said a prominent Washington economist: "I think Baker is nuts for resurrecting gold."

The fifth and final reaction is that despite Baker's denial, his motivation is political, but not in the sense -- as has been suggested -- that Baker is trying to steal some of Kemp's thunder to benefit his friend George Bush. Rather, Baker's motivation could be political in the sense of providing a talking point for the administration and the GOP in general, if inflation gets out of hand in campaign year 1988.

Says a long-time observer of the Washington scene: "At a time when markets are increasingly worried about inflation, Baker wanted to tell the world that the Reagan administration cares about prices, and he is using gold as a symbol of that." Presumably, a proven willingness to resort to the "discipline" of gold could be cited during the next campaign.

Shadow Chancellor Smith needn't wonder if Baker is serious about using gold as an indicator. He is. Baker has been considering it for a long time, as far back as the preliminary discussions of the indicators/surveillance system, preceding the Tokyo economic summit 18 months ago. Says an administration source: "Baker didn't bring gold up then because he is an 'incrementalist.' " That is, Baker judged -- correctly -- that the international coordination process, which he hoped would lead away from a laissez-faire process to a managed exchange rate system, could be accomplished only a step at a time. Bringing gold up then, it was clear, would raise hackles within the administration and abroad.

And, in fact, it still does. Baker was careful not to mention his idea to his fellow finance ministers at the Group of Seven meeting preceding the IMF/World Bank session, fearing that it would leak. And when he tipped off British Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, German Finance Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg and French Finance Minister Edouard Balladur that he would mention a commodities index in his upcoming speech, he carefully didn't mention that he would recommend including gold in the commodities basket.

Administration officials assure me that Kemp and Kudlow are making too great a leap in their assumption that Baker wants a full-scale gold standard. Baker's position is said to be identical with that of Fed Chairman Greenspan, who publicly declared that "going to a gold standard or a commodities standard would be inappropriate at this stage." Baker is known to believe that a return to a gold standard won't happen during his tenure at Treasury, and probably not in his lifetime.

Nonetheless, those who see danger in the Baker proposal have a basis for queasiness. The reason: he has touched off a process that could lead to an intermediate stage between the use of gold as an "analytical tool" and a full-fledged gold standard.

The halfway house, an administration official said, would be use of the commodities/gold index as a "price anchor" for monetary policy. Presumably, it would not be automatic -- for then, there would be the equivalent of a gold standard. But even if gold prices were some sort of optional guide for influencing policy, it would be bringing gold at least part of the way back into the system -- and many officials, including some at the Fed, are opposed to that. So far, Baker is committed only to the first step, which he thinks would be of benefit, in its own right, in getting sensible stability in exchange rates.

"He has no hidden agenda," assures an administration official.

One point to stress is that there is nothing sure, yet, even about the first step. Baker still has to negotiate that with the other six of the seven summit nations. His recent condemnation of rising interest rates in West Germany suggests that the international coordination process in general may be skating on thin ice.

Moreover, there is no indication yet what weight Baker would give gold in the commodities "basket" -- although a safe guess is that it would be small. The initial response to his initiative, while favorable from Chancellor Lawson and Finance Minister Balladur, has been negative or noncommittal from the more influential Japanese and Germans.

"We've moved incrementally," said an administration official. "You remember the Plaza {Hotel agreement among the Group of Five}, and you remember the steps that followed it {to move the dollar down and then coordinate economic policy}. Our philosophy is that you can't do things in one fell swoop. But I will tell you this: if you wanted to go that second step, you'd have to take this first one.