Over the past two weeks gold stocks have been shining at a time when the price of gold bullion has been dull. According to one of the top gold traders, Michel de Chabert-Ostland, who works for Sinclair Securities, this has often been bullish for the price of the metal. ''Gold stocks have sometimes been a leading barometer for bullion,'' he says, adding, ''It's a good gauge of smart-money buying.''
For many investors, this would be a welcome relief, since the price of gold has been a major disappointment. After moving from $300 per troy ounce last June to $520 an ounce in February, gold fell within a week to the $400 level. Today, it rests at about $425 per troy ounce. ''There was a lot of psychological damage caused by such a swift drop in the price of the metal,'' notes Ostland. ''Eighty percent of the participants in the gold market who were there before the collapse are not back in there now.'' This is reflected in low volume in the gold markets - here and in Europe.
Most traders blame the collapse in oil prices for the collapse in the gold price. ''After the oil price cut, we felt things were looking better for the US and European economies,'' says Kathleen Bonner, an analyst at Drexel Burnham Lambert, ''and we added one percentage point increase to the gross national product (forecast) and cut one percentage point off our estimate for the consumer price index.'' At the same time, she says, Drexel recommended that its customers cut back their gold holdings from 16 to 10 percent of their assets.
Another trader, at ACLI International in White Plains, N.Y., says, ''If the price of oil breaks, the price of gold breaks.'' He says that during times of crisis individuals move into dollars first, then Swiss francs, then gold.
Mr. Ostland, however, believes there are other reasons the price of gold fell so sharply. He cites a report in the New York Times that said Beryl Sprinkel, an undersecretary of the US Treasury, had canvassed American allies and trading partners about getting the International Monetary Fund to sell some of the IMF's vast gold holdings to raise funds.
''If you held gold and got one of those phone calls from Mr. Sprinkel, I think it would send chills up and down your spine,'' Mr. Ostland says. ''You would put him on hold and call your broker, telling him to sell gold short.'' The IMF holds about $40 billion of gold. ''If it were to sell that gold on the free market, it would cause the market to collapse.''
Even without the IMF selling gold, a sizable body of opinion still believes the price will fall anyway. Charles Stahl, publisher of Green's Commodity Market Comments, in Princeton, N.J., predicts ''gold won't go very far on the upside.'' Any rally would peter out at the $450 to $460 level, he maintains, and the market would retest its lows. On an even more extreme note, Julian Snyder, editor and publisher of International Moneyline, said the price would fall to $ 350 per troy ounce, but could drop as low as $200 an ounce.
Despite such projections, there are some bulls around. Jeffrey Nichols, vice-president and director of precious metals research at J. Aron & Co., a commodity markets dealer, in his firm's annual gold report, concludes that the ''gold supply will be insufficient to satisfy anticipated industrial and investment demand at recent price levels.''
In an analysis of supply and demand, Mr. Nichols, formerly the chief economist at Argus Research, says there will be 2.3 million fewer ounces of gold to meet investor demands than the amount investors bought last year. Thus, he says, ''Increased investment demand can only be met by investors bidding metal away from industrial consumers and each other, resulting in further substantial increases in price.''
Mr. Ostland is less sanguine. Over the short term, he notes, the Soviet Union is under pressure to sell gold, since it has lost $3 billion in income from the drop in the price of oil. Furthermore, some of the less-developed countries, faced with debt problems, might also sell some of their gold hoards to meet interest payments. He adds, ''Over the short term there is very little inflationary psychology to push gold prices up.'' But he says that ''over the medium and long term, with today's monetary actions, we might be seeing the making of a bull market.''