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Beware of scary Brexit headlines pushing you to buy gold

NEW YORK (AP) — If you thought the Brexit vote was scary, check out the full page newspaper ad that recently appeared in The New York Times recounting all the horrors in the present tense, as if they were still unfolding: The vote "topples" the British government, "crushes" the pound and "wipes away" billions in stock market wealth.

Then came the purpose behind all the panicky prose.

"Buy Gold Now!"

Investors have done just that, pushing up the price of the metal to a two-year high. But before joining the rush, experts warn, beware that assets marketed as conservative and safe bought in a panic can sometimes wallop investors with losses they were trying to avoid.

The ad was from a company selling gold coins that is run by is Philip Diehl, a coin expert with an impressive pedigree. He was the staff director of the Senate Finance committee, chief of staff at the Treasury Department, then head of the U.S. Mint, the government agency that stamps out dimes and quarters and other coins.

The company he heads, U.S. Money Reserve, may sound like U.S. Mint, but it is an unrelated, private company, as readers can see in the fine print at the bottom of the ad.

"Phones have been ringing off the hook," said Diehl of the reaction to Brexit. Gold is "a way of protecting wealth. It's like auto insurance or house insurance."

Barbara Roper, a director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, has no opinion on gold itself, but urges caution. She notes that investments sold as "safe" to investors are often anything but.

A quarter of a century ago, money poured into "world income funds" that bet on seemingly conservative short-term government debt. A decade ago, investors clamored for "auction rate securities" because they were told they were just as secure as cash in the bank. And after the 2008 financial crisis, index annuities were pitched as a way of betting on stock indexes with no risk of loss, a big draw after the U.S. market had lost half its value in a little over a year.

All these seemingly safe products slammed investors with high fees or kept them from accessing their money or socked them with outright losses.

"Fear is a good thing," said Roper. "Fear mongering is not."

Gold is not some newfangled financial product, of course. It has been a trusted storehouse of wealth and means of exchange for centuries, but lately it's been jumping around like a risky biotechnology stock. It soared during the financial crisis, fell in the four years through the end of last year, then began climbing sharply in recent months.

On Monday, gold hit $1,366 an ounce, up 28 percent since the start of the year.

Diehl thinks it will continue to rise because of all the turmoil in the world.

He's worried about a "hard landing" in China in which the world's second biggest economy slows further, taking many countries down with it. He's worried about another financial collapse like in the 2008 financial crisis. And he's worried politicians in the U.S. will be too gripped by fear of high public debt, and the ones in Europe too wedded to "austerity" policies, to vote for a burst of public spending to jolt their economies back to life should things fall apart again.

Investors seem to agree. In the five trading days after the Brexit vote, $2.7 billion rushed into gold funds, according to EPFR, a research firm. That is more than 10 times the typical weekly investment in the last bull market for gold in 2011.

The total $121 billion in gold funds is less than 1 percent of the money in stock funds, but it is rising fast — up 60 percent in just a year.

For all the popularity of the funds, gold bulls worried about a sort of financial Armageddon argue you're only really safe owning the metal itself, something like what Diehl sells, a coin you can hold in your hand and use to trade and survive.

"If you have gold coins, you get food, you can barter," said Monty Guild, a respected money manager who personally has 10 percent of his assets tied up in gold coins. With the funds, "if they close the stock exchange, you can't get your money."

Regulators have long warned of shady sales practices in the business of selling physical metal, though.

In April, securities regulators shut down two gold and silver sellers operating out of Boca Raton, Florida, for assuring customers of 30 percent returns before losing all their money. In 2012, the state court in California ordered a precious metals dealer made popular by TV commentator Glenn Beck — Goldline International — to pay $5 million to customers misled by price markups and false claims.

Diehl's firm, U.S. Money Reserve, has gotten into trouble, too. The Texas attorney general accused its sales staff of misleading customers responding to TV ads about its regular bullion coins, convincing them to buy more expensive commemorative coins instead by making false claims about how those would rise in value faster.

The company denied it ever misled customers in a settlement in 2011, but agreed to change its sales practices and pay $5 million. Diehl said the company hired him as president two years later because of his reputation for turning operations around.

The popular embrace of gold started with the plunge in dot-com stocks in 2000, gained strength with the advent of the SPDR Gold Trust, a low-fee exchange traded fund that allows ordinary people looking for a quick buck to invest, then peaked following the Federal Reserve's unprecedented moves to pump money into the economy to save it from collapse after the financial crisis. Spooked investors convinced that inflation would take off bought up the metal.

Gold hit a high of $1,923.70 in September 2011, up six fold from a decade earlier.

Diehl's ad highlights that remarkable rise, and suggests history might repeat.

"If you would have taken $150,000 of your money and bought physical gold in 2001, then that initial purchase would have been worth over $1 million in 2011," the ad says. It adds, "Imagine if this happens again..."

The danger with gold is that it doesn't pay interest like a bond or represent a share of a company like a stock. It's got no intrinsic value. It is only worth what people believe it's worth. And even after the recent surge, they believe it's worth less than what they thought it was worth five years ago.

That hypothetical $150,000 invested at the peak gold price in September 2011 would have left you with just $106,000 today, down 29 percent.

Asked whether the ad pushes things too far, Diehl responded: "We do not promise a positive return. I make statements about the direction that gold will go, but we're very cautious not to make statements about how the investment is going to perform."

Diehl thinks Brexit poses not only an economic risk, but a geopolitical one. He said it sows seeds of turmoil in Europe, possibly leading to more aggressive moves by Vladimir Putin of Russia along the lines of his annexation of the Crimea.

"What's happened with Brexit," he said, "could shake the foundations of 70 years of peace and prosperity in Europe."

Maybe so, just don't assume gold will shoot up.

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