Gold is failing as a hedge against inflation; silver, rare coins, stamps -- same story

The popular inflation hedges of the last few years -- gold, silver, diamonds, rare coins, and stamps -- are failing. Gold, which peaked in New York at $875 an ounce last year, was down to $524 an ounce at the closing fixing in London Jan. 27. The latest blow was the agreement of President Reagan and Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker at a meeting Jan. 23 that they would like to see the price of the yellow metal move even lower.

Silver prices slumped dramatically after the Hunt brothers of Texas -- nelson Bunker and W. Herbert -- and their friends got caught in a futures market squeeze last spring. Diamond prices are down about 11 percent in the last month or so. Stamp prices have been falling. One set, the Zeppelin set, dropped from according to one view, may have "bottomed out about a month ago."

Experts figure that two basic factors have hurt the market for precious metals and collectables:

* High interest rates. When money costs 18 percent or so, it is expensive to hold non-interest-bearing assets, especially if they are bought on margin.

Gold opened in London last year at $559.50 an ounce and closed at $589.50 an ounce. Thus, it offered a return of 5.4 percent if safe-keeping costs and other expenses were ignored.

"If you had kept your money in a savings account, you would have done better, " noted Charles R. Stahl, publisher of Green's Commodity Market Comments.

* Hopes for a decline in the inflation rate have risen. Many people believe that the election of President Reagan and a determined Federal Reserve System will stick firmly to their anti-inflation goals.

In the case of gold, the release of the hostages by Iran and the removal of the freeze on Iran's assets by the United States has eased some of the fears of international turmoil, particularly in the Middle East. Thus, some buyers of gold as a safety measure have sold some of their hoards of the expensive metal.

As to the future price of gold, opinions naturally vary.

Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith's gold expert, Leon Brand, canceled a sell recommendation Jan. 27 that had been made four weeks ago and made a buy recommendation. His decision was partly technical, regarding the market as "oversold." He also figures gold investors have by now taken account of the "good news" -- the hostage release, the Reagan election, better inflation prospects. Now, he believes, they will start looking at the difficulties ahead -- the decontrol of the price of oil, budget troubles, increased defense spending, rising food prices -- and decide that gold may not be so bad a buy after all.

Precious metals expert James E. Sinclair agrees with Mr. Brand that in the short run the gold price may turn about. "There is no road in the world which doesn't have a turn in it," he says. But for 1981 as a whole, he adds, "It is not going to be a rewarding year for gold."

Mr. Stahl of Green's Commodity Market Comments predicted last month that the high this year for gold would be in the $580 to $620 range and the low in the $ 380 to $420 bracket. The reasons for the decline, he suggests, include a more stable dollar, an increase in the Unted States balance- of-payments surplus from expectations, a 40 to 60 percent drop in the use of gold by jewelers last year as customers resisted the higher prices, and an easing of tension in the Middle East.

Some analysts have maintained that purchases of gold for their international monetary reserves by third world nations would support the price of the rare metal. But Stahl says: "Baloney. They would have to have their heads examined. They can get 14 or 15 percent on their money."

In any case, among gold analysts, the bears currently outnumber the bulls.

As for silver, Stahl notes that the public was "100 percent right" in unloading its silver last year. Some 70 million ounces of scrap were dumped on the market, compared with a normal 35 million ounces. This, he thinks, could depress the market to $8 an ounce this year.

In the case of diamonds, one New York dealer maintains that their prices are near the bottom of a cycle they go through every five to six years. Some types of diamonds increased in price by 70 percent in 1979. Then, he says, the bubble burst in March 1980 as interest rates took their first big jump. They were down 25 to 30 percent by September before recovering some of their losses.

Some stamps have risen in price, but, in general, prices are not keeping up with inflation, noted an expert. Some rare coins doubled in price between January and April 1980, but then lost nearly all of that gain before the end of year. James Halperin, president of the New England Rare Coin Galleries, hopes they have "bottomed out."

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