All that glitters is not necessarily a good investment

Civil war in Lebanon. Renewed US-Soviet tensions. Continued fighting between Iran and Iraq that may lead to a blockade of the Persian Gulf oil route. There was a time when just one of these things would be enough to send the price of gold soaring. But in recent weeks, with all of these events and more going on at once, gold's price has dropped. It has already gone under the $400 -an-ounce barrier. It is now selling at around $395.

Looking for reasons, one expert cites the problems of various nations' central banks, which have been selling gold. Another notes the recent troubles of two US gold trading firms, one of which involved the suicide of its president. Another notes that the expected pre-Christmas upturn in orders by jewelers has not happened.

These explanations may be correct, but they are not material to the issue of whether gold is a good investment. For most investors, gold is too risky.

That statement is sure to cause a lot of disagreement, particularly among individuals and companies that make a living buying and selling gold. It may also be frowned upon by people who bought gold 15 years ago when it was $35 an ounce and saw its price escalate to nearly $900 by January of 1980. The fact that it has lost more than half that gain since then is not considered important; it might come back.

It might, but gold has had a rather poor track record in recent years. Its price is too unsteady to warrant its use as an investment.

A common definition of an investment is something that involves a certain amount of risk, in exchange for the possibility of a return that actually increases the investor's net worth. Over the long term, gold has managed to hold its own against inflation. An ounce of gold bought an expensive suit in the late 1930s. It would today also. But stocks and bonds would have done far more to boost an investor's net worth over that period.

Still, for a variety of reasons, gold is a popular buy. Gold is mysterious. It's the stuff of legends and history. Maybe because it can be carried to whatever far-away refuge, in the event of a national or worldwide disaster.

Besides, it's pretty. Most of the gold coins produced by Canada, Mexico, South Africa, and the United States are downright beautiful. You can buy a few coins for the fun of it, or to give children or grandchildren. And you can be fairly sure that, at today's prices, they won't lose much value, if any, over the next several years.

But the problem with an average person trying to invest heavily in gold is that he is betting against unforeseeable decisions by central bankers, or producer nations such as South Africa and the Soviet Union, or the whims of speculators. Even some professional traders are not sure what might happen. A British trader told the Financial Times recently: ''Gold is going down to $320, if it doesn't go up to $445 first.''

If you still want to buy gold, hovever, there are several ways to do it.

One is to buy certificates of ownership. The certificates signify that you are the owner of a certain amount of the metal being held in a bank or private vault. But this can also be dangerous; you must be sure your gold is fully segregated from that of other investors and from the gold owned by the company that sold it to you. You must be certain the gold is actually there, and the surest way would seem to buy only those certificates offered by reliable banks or longtime gold dealers. One troubled firm, Bullion Reserve of North America, was found this fall to have far less gold than it had sold in certificates.

Another way to buy some glitter is by investing in gold mining stocks. In recent years, these stocks have outperformed inflation.

Perhaps the safest way to invest in more than a few gold coins is through mutual funds. There are about half a dozen funds that invest in gold mining stocks, and a couple have had spectacular returns. One, United Services Gold Shares, had a five-year gain of 645.9 percent through the middle of this year. But past results are no guarantee of future performance. This same fund was down 2.1 percent for the first nine months of this year. Easy-to-get credit cards

Q I've been seeing advertisements that claim I can get a Visa or MasterCard regardless of my income or past credit history. I've never heard of any credit being given to someone with a bad credit history. Is this possible? - H. Z.

Yes, but it's not such a good deal. You do get a credit card, usually with a return, you have to put $1,000 on deposit with the issuing bank as security. You earn 5 1/2 percent on your $1,000, but you pay at least 18 percent interest on any outstanding credit balances. So whenever you use your card, you are actually borrowing from yourself, at high interest rates. But, this could be one way to establish a better credit rating. If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation.m

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