Hold it! Don't reach for the telephone and put in an order for gold.
That could, of course, be the worst investment advice you'll get all summer. But from where I sit now, we're not watching a movie called ''The Gas Lines of 1979: The Sequel.''
Gold shone brilliantly during the oil-price holdups of the 1970s. But this time it's different. Oil is in surplus. We, not OPEC, are running the embargo. And oil-driven inflation is far from a sure thing.
As an investor, you have three different ways of judging gold:
As a hyper-inflation hedge. If the U.S. dollar is ever carted off in wheelbarrows, gold will preserve your purchasing power. Against this risk, investors accumulate hoards of gold coins, stored in caches of their choosing.
But hyper-inflation is a big-dollar, high-wealth worry. Only the rich can afford to sink all that money into an asset that pays no interest and may show no growth for years on end, which is just what happened during much of the 1980s.
If the dollar ever does go the way of the peso, the rich will, of course, have preserved their wealth while all the rest of us go broke. But that's what life's like among the rich.
As a trauma defense. During sudden and alarming political crises, the price of gold typically dances up.
Surprisingly, gold laid low during the early days of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait -- maybe because, at around the same time, the Saudi Arabians, the Soviets or others were selling gold. But starting last week, prices zoomed to the area of $410 an ounce, up from $370 before the conflict began.
These kinds of risks attract the professional hedgers who bet aggressively on futures, options and warrants. It was their moves that drove up the market, in the view of the London-based precious-metals analysts of the brokerage firm S.G. Warburg. The hedgers are all chasing paper, however, rather than accumulating gold itself. Such moves last only as long as the political crisis does. That could be a while, of course, but it's no arena for amateurs.
As a commodity investment. This view attracts gold's less dedicated, but more critical, followers, who will hold their positions for more than an hour but less than a lifetime. Sometimes the profit fundamentals look good, and they buy. Sometimes the fundamentals look bad, and they don't. At the moment, these fundamentalists are not impressed.
Politics aside, gold generally rises on expectations of higher inflation ahead. And indeed, some experts have predicted that increased prices for oil and oil-based products will add a point and a half to the consumer price index. As far as the gold price is concerned, however, that ''expectational'' move is already behind us.
But what if Americans respond to higher oil-linked prices by buying less of everything else? That would lower the boom on the price hikes planned by other industries -- in which case, the CPI wouldn't rise so much. My favorite target for forced rollbacks: the 4 percent and 5 percent rises that General Motors and the other Detroiters have announced for their new cars this fall.
If the CPI doesn't move as high as the pessimists fear (perhaps because a recession develops), gold prices will fall back.
As a basic, everyday inflation investment, gold has been a bust. From the end of 1974, when it first became legal for Americans to own gold (at nearly $200 an ounce) through the end of 1989, the price has risen almost exactly by the inflation rate. That's a zero percent real return. What's more, gold paid no income and cost an investor money to insure and store. If you're satisfied with a zero real return long-term, you might as well buy Treasury bills; after inflation and taxes, their long-term return is zero, too.