WASHINGTON - Investors should not be spooked into taking this year's big run-up in gold prices as a sign that inflation is taking off.
Gold selling for more than $400 an ounce makes for good chatter in financial markets, but many everyday price measures provide evidence that inflation remains in check.
The message for portfolio managers and individual investors is simple. Inflation is still not a problem, and stocks and bonds remain valid investments if they are bought carefully and held over time to ride out any bumps in the marketplace.
Anthony Karydakis, senior financial economist for First National Bank of Chicago, traces the jump in gold prices from a low of $330 in January to several special factors. None tells a tale of an economy that is expanding too rapidly and heading for the classic situation of too many dollars chasing too few goods.
First, there were the disappointing government statistics on inflation this year that prompted Federal Reserve officials to adopt their May policy directive that leans toward a tighter monetary policy. While the Fed remains on the lookout for new signs of price pressures, analysts have been reassured by the May and June price figures and do not see inflation breaking out of a 3% range anytime soon.
Second, there were the widely publicized purchases of gold by George Soros, a well-known global fund manager, who predicted gold prices were headed higher. His comments, and others by prominent market players such as Jim Goldsmith, helped fuel the gold frenzy.
Third, says Karydakis, cutbacks in production by South Africa and other major gold producers helped buoy prices. Meanwhile, there were reports of unusually large purchases by China and other buyers for political reasons.
Karydakis concludes that the rise in gold prices "has set off a hopelessly false alarm" and says the more impressive event in markets is that bond yields, which normally go up on inflation fears, have held steady.
With stock and bond markets generally strong, gold offered a tempting alternative for investors looking for a place to put their money. Worries about shaky currencies in Europe and elsewhere have encouraged traders to build up their positions in bullion and gold futures as a currency hedge.
Private banks in Europe, U.S. investment banks, hedge funds, mutual funds, and foreign exchange dealers have been in on the gold-buying binge, said Jeffrey Christian, managing director of CPM Group, a precious-metals consulting firm in New York.
But ordinary investors do not have to look far to be assured that inflation is not building up much of a head of steam. There are plenty of cases in which prices are coming down, not going up:
* Oil prices have dropped to $18 a barrel from $19.50 at the beginning of the year, and there has been speculation that they will go lower if Iraq can ever regain its status as a major exporter.
* Philip Morris Cos. announced that the price cut in Marlboro cigarettes may be made permanent, suggesting other tobacco prices will be coming down, too, after years of steady increases.
* Prices of high-tech footwear that carry endorsements from TV superstars like Michael Jordan have dropped below $100, and retailers have slashed prices repeatedly to move inventory.
* The continuing war in the computer business is providing more and more processing capabilities at lower prices. J&R Computer World, a discount retailer in New York, lists an IBM PS/1 personal computer with a 486SX Intel processor and a 14-inch color monitor, plus other accessories, at $1,699. Not long ago, IBM personal computers could not be bought for less than $2,500.
If anyone doubts that retailers are having trouble making prices stick, they only have to ponder the announcement by Procter & Gamble that it is slashing 13,000 jobs, 12% of its work force, and shutting 30 plants. Chairman Edwin L. Artzt frankly acknowledged that the company's top-line products, longtime household names, will have to be priced more aggressively to compete with generic brands that are gaining in popularity.