Are the golden years over for gold? With prominent hedge fund managers such as George Soros selling large quantities of gold and the price down about 16.5 percent from 2011's all-time peak near $1,924, some experts think gold's best days could be tarnished by the world's nascent economic recovery.
"We have been concerned about gold and silver prices for some time and the recent loss of momentum has concerned us even more," said Citigroup analyst Jon Bergtheil in a report.
He says it's possible that the 12-year bull market in gold and silver has ended.
"If gold is currently peaking, it may have a long way to go down in terms of dollars per ounce as well as in the matter of the extended time frame," he said.
So investors who bought gold thinking it would always be a winner could be disappointed by a slump much worse than gold's slide to $1,604 an ounce Tuesday. The last time a bull market in gold ended, in 1980, gold was a loser for more than 20 years after peaking at $850 an ounce. Gold declined to $252 and didn't return to $850 until 2008.
Bergtheil is recommending that investors who invest in mining company stocks move from what he calls the "insurance metals" to industrial metals.
The thinking is that gold and silver were purchased for protection from the financial crisis and Great Recession in 2008. And as the Federal Reserve and other central banks throughout the world attempted to resuscitate the global economy by pouring trillions into the system, gold has been attractive as a hedge against potential inflation.
Recently, however, with some signs of recovery in China and the U.S., stocks have become increasingly attractive, and some hedge funds - which move money around as they see opportunity in different types of investments - have added stocks to portfolios while selling some gold.
Bergtheil has suggested to client investors in metals to select industrial metals used for construction and industrial purposes rather than gold and silver. Platinum, a precious metal that also is used for industrial purposes, has climbed about 10 percent this year while spot gold has declined 4.25 percent.
Still, getting a clear signal on gold for the long term isn't easy.
Gold has "proven to be fickle," said commodities analyst Suki Cooper, of Barclays. "For now, gold appears to be without a clear driver given its range trade amid reduced investor conviction."
But he noted in a recent report to clients that as Congress begins to debate what to do about the nation's deficit and debt ceiling this spring, gold could be revived as a haven.
In August 2011, when gold was near its peak, investors were worried about European and U.S. political leaders unable to solve debt problems. At the time, the United States' debt rating was downgraded by Standard & Poor's, and European debt issues threatened to set off banking problems that could infect the global financial system.
Since then, European leaders have calmed investors by providing aid to troubled banks and countries. Stocks have climbed sharply in Europe and the U.S. as a result. And since European Central Bank leader Mario Draghi pledged to "do whatever it takes" to keep the eurozone intact, investors have become increasingly optimistic.
Yet as the Federal Reserve and other central banks have poured massive amounts of stimulus into the system - or what is often called "printing money" - investors have continued to invest in gold as a potential hedge against inflation and a decline in the dollar's value.
The presumption has been, however, that if the Fed signals an end to stimulus, gold prices will recede.
Meanwhile, analysts such as John LaForge, of Ned Davis Research, warn investors that "decoding gold's drivers at any given moment is risky business."
"In the short-term, 2013, we think the greatest risk to gold is a U.S. dollar rally," he said, but adds: "The big caveat here is that gold has more moving parts than a Swiss timepiece."
That should be a sobering message for individuals swept up by late-night TV and radio ads touting gold as a no-brainer under any conditions.
LaForge thinks there is still upside for gold, but says that "how much upside gold has left will depend largely on the pace of global money printing."
Various gold promoters argue that gold investing is protection amid fear, a hedge against inflation or a bet on the Federal Reserve's stimulus, LaForge said, but: "The truth is that gold falls somewhere in the middle of all of that."
He warned: "Gold is anything but simple."
Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send her email at email@example.com