Would you invest in something that could lose half its value in less than two years?
A lot of people apparently did just that a couple of years ago. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when world tensions helped push the price of gold to a peak of $875 an ounce, many people bought all the gold they could afford, despite warnings from experts that it was not a good time to invest in the metal.
Gold's price has calmed down in recent months, and many of the speculators have been replaced by the more traditional investors. They are currently paying below $400 an ounce. Still, the metal's ''emotional'' nature and current events - like the recent heavy selling of Soviet gold to help pay Poland's debt - make it an uncertain investment, at best.
Just how uncertain, however, depends on who is talking. Many financial planners and consultants recommend little or no gold holdings. People in the business of selling or trading gold, for obvious reasons, think it's an excellent idea.
''By and large, gold is not a good idea,'' said Edward M. Bernstein, a Washington economist and consultant to central bankers. ''The only time there's a return is when prices rise.''
In addition, Mr. Bernstein maintains, gold prices are too subject to the whims of speculators to make the metal a good idea for financial planning. Contracts for the same unit of gold exchange hands so often, he notes, that ''in a 10-day period more than 1 1/2 times as much gold is traded in New York alone than is produced in the world in a whole year.''
''I'm not recommending gold right now,'' John Dixon, a financial planner in Boca Raton, Fla., said. ''The only thing it has to hang its hat on is tension around the world.''
Even that peg is sometimes questionable. Despite the declaration of martial law in Poland and the resulting increase in East-West feelings, gold has moved little in price.
''Being in a disinflationary period, we can deliver better results by not participating in gold,'' claimed Robert Hill, portfolio manager for the Chemical Trust Division of Chemical Bank in New York. As inflation and interest rates have been coming down, gold prices have followed. And if inflation rates go up again, as some think they will at some point, gold prices may follow. Then again , they may not, which is why many advisers suggest avoiding gold.
But even financial planners recognize gold's ''glamour'' value, and have no quarrel with clients who want to buy a few Mexican or Canadian gold coins, or South African Krugerrands, to tuck in the back of a safe deposit box or give to the grandchildren.
But for others, gold is more than a few baubles; it is a wise way to protect some of your money.
''Gold can be a good hedge against (losses in) the rest of your portfolio,'' says Jacques Luben, head of the precious-metals department at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. Merrill Lynch is a distributor for Mexico's gold coins. ''It's an extremely effective form of insurance.''
What is being insured, Mr. Luben and others who favor gold explain, is the value of the investor's money. Over the long run, gold tends to rise in price along with inflation. If a person buys $10,000 worth of gold, he can be reasonably sure that gold will have about the same amount of buying power in 10, 20, or 30 years, even if it takes 10 times as much money to purchase what $10, 000 will buy today.
Gold holdings amounting to about 10 percent of the portfolio make ''a reasonable figure,'' Luben says.
Another gold advocate, George Esser, a director of the Mexican coin program, asserts that gold is ''the first solid building block in financial planning. Mr. Esser, who has also worked for the Krugerrand program, says a balanced personal portfolio should contain 10 to 20 percent gold.
''I want to have some assets established in something that no doubt will have a value in 20 years or so,'' he says emphatically.
Esser's 20 percent recommendation is higher than most. Most experts recommend no more than 15 percent, preferably 5 or 10 percent, in gold.
Big jumps in gold prices, like those seen in 1980, make marketing the coins ''more difficult,'' Esser admits. ''We would prefer a steady, stable market.''
Of course, gold has some relatively steady ''industrial'' uses, with jewelry falling into this category. But its price is so often influenced by unforeseeable government actions - gold sales, wars, political shocks - that it remains a highly risky investment in the short term.