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Lackluster gold market has bright side: world inflation is on the run

One gold trader was reading a newspaper. Two desks in the sizable trading room were empty. The phones were not ringing. ''There is nothing to say about gold,'' said one of Zurich's top gold dealers in an interview. Volume of sales and purchases is low. The price is weak. The Soviet Union is not selling much, if any, gold.

The only excitement in the gold market was the decision last month of Wozchod-Handelsbank AG, the Soviets' Swiss-based gold-trading bank, to dismiss its chief gold dealer, charging he had ''exceeded his authority.'' The dealer, Werner Peterhans, a Swiss national, reportedly lost up to $160 million in unauthorized trading.

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Yet there is something of a story behind this nonactivity in the gold market, according to the dealer the Monitor talked with. It indicates that inflation is under control in much of the industrial world. It shows that investors can get a high rate of interest in United States dollar securities, vs. paying storage charges on gold and drawing and no interest.

The dealer notes that a Swiss resident would earn around 5 percent interest on a secure investment in Switzerland. If he had invested in a US dollar bond early in the year, he would have at least an extra 5 percent in interest, plus about 20 percent appreciation in the value of his investment due to the rise in the value of the dollar.

Even political unrest causes less stir in the gold markets nowadays than it used to.

''At present, the surroundings aren't very good for buying gold,'' the dealer said. Before granting an interview, this dealer, one of the world's most important, insisted on anonymity.

Despite the weak market, South Africa regularly sells most of its large gold production on the market. It must do so to meet its foreign-exchange needs, the dealer said. The Soviet Union, however, has little need to sell gold, despite its massive purchases of grain from abroad. ''They probably have no foreign-exchange problem,'' the dealer said.

The market for gold has become worldwide. With modern communications, the variations in price between Zurich, London, New York, or Hong Kong are minor. If a difference in price opens up, it is quickly closed by traders acting as arbitrageurs.

Indeed, the dealer noted, a trader does not have time to use a computer to figure out profitable price differentials between markets. He must think it out and act immediately. ''By the time the data is put in the computer, it is too late,'' he said. Another arbitrageur would beat him to the opportunity.

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Zurich, according to this dealer, matches London in volume of gold trades. The two markets, he maintains, are complementary. ''We need each other,'' he said.

A pool of the three largest Swiss banks, Credit Suisse, Swiss Banking Corporation, and Union Bank of Switzerland, buys probably more than half the production of South Africa jointly, as noncompeting wholesalers. Then the pool retails it independently. The Swiss themselves are not major gold buyers, although some goes to the watch industry. The best buyers are in the Middle East.

With the price for gold relatively low, running around $326 to $328 an ounce, compared with a monthly average of more than $600 in 1980, industrial demand for gold (in jewelry, electronics, and so on) is strong this year, the dealer noted.

Is gold a good investment now? ''If it was good at $500 an ounce, it certainly can't be bad at $328,'' the dealer held. But that assumes the price will rise. At present, sales of gold coins are down, and many dealers have left the business. ''They haven't got the stamina to stay in a market which is dead, '' the dealer said.

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