Bill Bowler, a 77-year-old Baptist pastor in Tucson, has been listening to the alarming news from Iraq and North Korea and watching the stock markets swoon. And every time another headline screams war and another certificate of deposit comes due, he adds to the hoard of gold in his safe-deposit box. Most of his and his wife's retirement savings are now in gold.
Such a big bet on gold is risky, financial advisers say. But Bowler is unmoved by the warnings. "I feel safer with my investment in gold," he said. "I can take it out and look at it and see it."
Gold is the pessimist's investment of choice: It rises when the dollars slides, the stock market sinks, the economy slumps and the world descends into war.
No wonder it just hit a six-year high.
"Gold has been around for 5,000 years as a store of value, and during times of crisis people tend to move toward gold as a golden anchor," said Michael Checkan, president of Asset Strategies International Inc., a Rockville firm that sells precious metals and foreign currency to individual investors.
Although gold is trading around at $370 an ounce, it has been a poor investment over the long run compared with stocks. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index has returned 692.8 percent since 1980, while gold has lost 27.9 percent during the same period, according to Redwood/Technimentals Research Group, a brokerage and market data firm in New York.
But in certain periods, it has shined next to equities. When the economy was mired in stagflation in the 1980s, gold soared to $850 an ounce.
Of course, during the decade-long economic expansion of the 1990s, the yellow metal plummeted, hitting $260 an ounce in 1999. But after the stock market plunged, gold prices headed up.
Gold mutual funds performed spectacularly last year as the stock market dropped for the third year in a row. While large value equity funds slipped 19 percent, precious-metals funds, which invest mainly in gold, averaged a 63 percent gain in 2002, according to investment research firm Morningstar Inc.
The major trading centers for gold are the futures and options exchanges in London, Zurich, Hong Kong, Singapore and New York, at the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange. A small volume is also swapped at the Chicago Board of Trade.
Manufacturers and producers, such as mining companies, which trade for business purposes, have dominated trading during the long slide in the price of gold. Retail investors typically account for 15 percent of the gold market, according to Checkan.
But as prices have recovered, there has been an upsurge in interest from commodity mutual funds and retail investors, said Charles Nedoss, a gold futures trader at Peak Trading Group, a brokerage in Chicago. Sales have doubled since December at Goldline International Inc., a Santa Monica, Calif., company that sells and ships bars and coins to individual investors. Checkan said the increase in gold sales at Asset Strategies International has been "significant," but he declined to give details.
Gold is one of the few commodities to attract retail investor or mutual fund interest. Still, the gold market is tiny compared with the equities market. The assets of all precious-metals funds totaled $3.9 billion at the end of 2002, a very small fraction of the $72.3 billion managed by the biggest equity mutual fund, the Vanguard Group's 500 Index Fund.
The gold market's smaller size makes it too volatile for many, say personal financial advisers. Daily price swings of 5 to 15 percent are not uncommon. "It's like the baby pool," said David R. Petersen, president of Financial Services Advisory Inc. in Rockville. "It doesn't take a lot of water to make a pretty good wave."
In 1869, the infamous robber baron Jay Gould attempted to corner the gold market, an effort the U.S. Treasury foiled by dumping its gold reserves on the market, causing the price of gold to plummet. But there have been no cases of gold market manipulation in recent history, according to Checkan.
Individual investors who want to make a bet on gold can purchase bars or coins from retail dealers, such as Goldline International or Asset Strategies International. But an easier alternative, say investment advisers, is to buy certificates of ownership or shares in precious-metals mutual funds, which are offered by some large mutual fund groups. Certificates, often issued by central banks or mints and sold by retail dealers, are usually more convenient than owning the actual ingots because storage and insurance costs are absorbed by the supplier.
A slightly more diversified alternative is gold mutual funds, which invest in stocks of mining companies as well as in coins and bullion.
Then there is the strategy taken by former investment banker Ian Watson, who lives in San Francisco. Watson, who invested in a gold mining company in the early 1980s and later sold his shares, said that "for the past 22 years, gold has been the worst asset class to own." Yet he is now so bullish on gold that last year he formed a mining company, Shambhala Gold, and is deciding which ore deposits to buy. A third of his portfolio is invested in gold through his company.
Watson participated in the tech rally of the late 1990s and was initially wary of investing in gold again until the possibility of war with Iraq began pounding a dollar already fragile from a languishing economy and a widening trade deficit.
"I only got in six months ago, so I missed a chunk of the gold rally," Watson said. But he said he believes the gold surge will last well beyond the war with Iraq. "The dollar's weakness is a function of the current account deficit, not of emotional concerns about Iraq. It's a trend rather than a blip."
Others disagree. "There are probably better investments out there if you believe that the economy will come out of this recession like it has every other recession," said Paul Dietrich, chairman of Nye, Parnell & Emerson Capital Management Inc. in Alexandria.
Even Mark Albarian, who as president and chief executive of Goldline sells gold to Bowler, is uncomfortable that Bowler has all his savings in gold. "I don't think it's appropriate," he said. He recommends that clients invest 5 to 20 percent of their portfolio in gold.
"On the other hand, we can't stop a person," Albarian said. "Most of our clients are not 'gold bugs.' Most people take a more moderate stance than Bill."