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Should You Buy Gold?

It's very risky at today's prices, say advisers. But over the long run, a little could help protect you

Is gold the magic bullet for your portfolio?

It's a natural question. At a time when the stock market seems to have become unhinged, the one investment everyone loves is the precious yellow metal.

See also: Gold holds its investment value.

If you haven't heard, it traded at more than $1,800 an ounce last week, up nearly $600, or 50 percent, since last August. If you have heard, you're probably kicking yourself for not having bought it a year ago.

In addition, gold seems particularly well suited to a time when the dollar is skidding against other currencies and many economists think much steeper inflation is inevitable. The thinking goes that the yellow metal has a unique ability to maintain its "store of value" if the nation's currency loses its purchasing power and prices head up.

The Federal Reserve argues that with unemployment holding over 9 percent and many factories operating at less than full capacity, there is plenty of time and room for the U.S. economy to expand before there's a long-term danger of inflation. On the strength of that conviction, the Fed announced on Tuesday that it would keep short-term interest rates near zero for at least another two years.

But that only reinforced many investors' conviction that the dollar could only go lower. (If you're going to get zero percent interest for the next two years for buying dollar-denominated debt, why buy it?)

Peter Schiff, CEO of EuroPacific Capital and a longtime gold bull, is one of those investors. "Until interest rates are allowed to rise to appropriate levels," he wrote in his blog on Friday, "The dollar will keep falling, consumer prices will keep rising, and the government will keep blaming our problems on external factors beyond its control."

In addition, the prestige of the dollar's guarantor, Uncle Sam, took a deeply symbolic beating when Standard & Poor's downgraded the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ last Friday. And jitters over the debt crisis in Europe only reinforced the sense that the euro, too, is under siege.

Next: How much are you willing to risk? >>

A question of risk

The question any potential buyer of gold needs to ask, however, is whether those concerns are already reflected in the price of the metal. While gold today seems like a safe haven, it can be quite unforgiving if you time your purchases wrong.

In January 1980 — a time not unlike today, when high inflation and the Iranian revolution helped make the United States look economically and politically weak — gold reached a peak of $850 an ounce. When the worries faded, the metal dropped to the $300-to-$500 range for close to a quarter of a century.

When inflation is factored in, gold still hasn't regained its 1980 value, despite its recent run. By some estimates, it would have to climb to $2,200 an ounce to do that.

And while it could still get there, some savvy investors have their doubts. James Holt, an investment strategist at BlackRock, the world's largest money manager, told Reuters that the company's global allocation fund usually keeps about 5 percent of its money in gold to balance out risks in other kinds of assets. But he now thinks it's time to take profits.

"Gold and bonds are doing really, really well, and we're making profits on them and putting these into the asset classes that are getting cheaper and cheaper, which are definitely equities," Holt said.

He says, asked on Wednesday, that BlackRock has a number of products where investors can express their views on the commodity. With respect to his personal account, he views gold "as a little too rich."

The bottom line is this: If you want to buy gold because you hope to make a killing over the next few months, you're taking a big chance.

A hedge against disaster?

Financial planners say the better way to look at gold is not as a short-term speculation, but as a kind of financial disaster insurance policy — what independent consulting economist Ed Yardeni calls "a hedge against out-of-control governments and their reckless fiscal and monetary policies."

In that view, you keep a small portion of your money in gold — no more than 5 percent, especially at today's prices. If the global panic gets worse from here, gold will rise, offsetting the devastation in the rest of your investments. If markets settle down, as they probably will, your bet on gold will lose, but you'll make money elsewhere in your portfolio.

And, frankly, for the sake of the economy and your long-range financial health, that's the outcome you want.

Also of interest: 7 things to do when the market slumps. >>

Eric Schurenberg is the financial editor at large for AARP the Magazine and a former managing editor of Money magazine.