Uncertainty tarnishes silver's appeal
''Silver,'' wrote Shakespeare in ''Romeo and Juliet,'' ''hath a sweet sound.''
Maybe so, but for investors the past year silver has produced its share of sour notes.
Those looking for a safe place to put a pocketful of bills may want to hold off buying silver coins or bullion - at least for the time being - analysts say.
The price of the ''white gold,'' as the ancient Egyptians called it, has been depressed most of the year. It slipped below the $10-dollar-a-troy-ounce barrier in June and in the past few months has hovered around $8 an ounce.
Many analysts, citing continuing high interest rates and the impression that inflation is moderating, predict the price may drop even further before it rebounds. Moreover, skittishness about the new federal tax law among some traders has prompted them to pull out of the market, pressuring prices even lower in the face of bull market conditions.
''The general feeling is that precious metals haven't touched bottom yet,'' says David Waite, head of the metals unit at the investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. ''I would not be surprised to see the market come down to $6 to $7 .''
Given the uncertainty of the economy, the watchword on silver is caution. Like gold, silver is a popular inflation hedge. But analysts differ on just when the recession-bound economy might again perk up (and inflationary jitters along with it), thus triggering a precious-metals buying spree and again driving up the price.
Some analysts argue that the price had dipped far enough to make silver a good buy now. Others think investors should hold off until the price plunges below the $7 mark.
One factor that could boost the price later in the year is if the government decides to scrap altogether its plans to sell off some of its silver stocks. The Reagan administration had hoped to sell silver from the national defense stockpile at the rate of 1 million troy ounces a week to raise some $500 million in fiscal 1982.
But in the waning days of 1981, legislators from Idaho, the leading silver-mining state, pushed through an amendment to the defense appropriations bill which stopped sales until July. They argued that the influx of government-owned silver would depress the market.
Another factor, some analysts say, that could prop up the price: a sluggish copper market. Much of the silver produced in this country comes as a byproduct of copper mining. If too many copper mines shut down -- and some are facing lean times -- it could reduce silver supplies and drive up the price.
Jacques Luben, head of the precious metals department at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc., maintains that silver is close to ''bottoming out.'' He says it might be a good time to buy - if you are going to hold on to the metal for a year or two. By then the price should rebound.
''Fundamentally silver will head higher over the next six to 18 months,'' he says. ''Two years from now $8 silver will look pretty reasonable.'' He thinks the price will eventually rise closer to its historical relationship with gold. In the past 10 years, the gold-to-silver ratio has been 32 to 1. Lately it has been closer to 49 to 1.
Mr. Luben suggests that anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of a person's portfolio should be in precious metals at any given time. If prices are rising, a good part of that should be in silver, since it is more volatile than gold and likely to rise quicker. But look out if the price tumbles.
For now, the market still seems to be working off the glut of silver that was dumped during the great silver explosion - and subsequent crash - of early 1980. At the time, the metal rocketed to more than $50 an ounce. Then, within a matter of weeks, it plummeted to around $14, squeezing the billionaire Hunt brothers - the silver titans from Texas - in the process. While the price was up, people sent silverware, tea sets, old coins, and other heirlooms to the melting pot to cash in.
The result: In 1980, for the first time in more than a decade, there was more silver available than users wanted. But the supply-and-demand scales are now tipping back to normal.
Charles Stahl, publisher of Green's Commodity Market Comments, an investment letter, is as jaunty as a bullfinch about silver. He predicts it will hit $16 to government's silver sale, plans by Peru (a major silver supplier) to turn half its production in 1982 into coins rather than sell it, and the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee's hopes to mint 56 million coins to commemorate the 1984 Olympic Games.
What's more, the US government was recently given the green light to mint up to 10 million silver half dollars this year to memorialize George Washington's 250th birthday. All this, Mr. Stahl says, should tighten the supply of silver and drive up the price.
Many other analysts don't see such a sheen on silver's prospects. Gregory Kipnis, chief economist at ACLI International Inc., a brokerage house, believes precious metals will be sluggish over the next six to nine months. With the economy heading into the teeth of a recession, few people will be investing in precious metals to protect their money.
Silver, more often than gold, is sensitive to recessionary swings. Considered by some a miracle of nature's handiwork, the metal is used in photography, electrical products, sterling ware - and even as a catalyst in making antifreeze and foam insulation. Ronald Shorr, a metals analyst with Bear, Stearns & Co., expects industrial demand for silver to fall off this year. Partly as a result of this, he sees the price dipping perhaps as low as $6 in the next few months.
Still, any major disruption in world affairs - such as a Soviet invasion of Poland - could kick the price up. But, says Thomas Herzig of P. R. Herzig, a Wall Street metals broker, the ''inflation hedges'' don't look attractive now. ''In a deflationary environment, cash is king.''