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Lower-income investors still cling to gold hopes

Individual investor comeback?

When it comes to investing, those at opposite ends of the economic spectrum are going in pretty much completely different directions.

The more affluent in society making above $75,000 now believe real estate offers the best investment choice—even better than stocks and gold and a whole lot better than bonds, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Conversely, those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, making less than $30,000, believe gold is their best investment, easily beating a stock market that gained nearly 30 percent over the past year and 180 percent since the March 2009 recession low.

Some of the reason for the disparity is fairly common sense—it's easier for someone with limited funds to buy gold than it is real estate and even stocks.

Traders work the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
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But the disparity also probably highlights the difference in attitude toward the future. Where the wealthier who have benefited far more proportionately from stock and real estate gains have a more positive outlook on those assets and the future, the poor have languished in a two-speed recovery that has seen income disparity surge to around historic highs.

"The attraction of gold is part of a general pessimism and might well be affecting the poor more than the wealthy—that the world is coming to an end and you'll need some gold coins," said Meir Statman, behavioral finance professor at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business. "It seems somehow that is also related to a general view of the world as being very threatening."

Investors haven't been doing themselves any favors recently by buying gold, particularly compared to stock market returns.

In a seven-year period from 2004 to 2011, gold prices nearly quintupled, thanks in large part to the global economic meltdown and fears of inflation from hyper-aggressive central bank monetary policy. However, the metal has since lost about a third of its value while real estate prices have continued to climb.

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The stock market has experienced a continued surge, however volatile, over the past five years, but lost about 60 percent of its value during the 2008-09 financial crisis and suffered huge losses due to the 2000 dotcom bubble.

Lower-income investors have continued to have faith in gold, though the Gallup consensus now puts real estate first among all investors with 30 percent of those surveyed. Stocks and gold tied at 24 percent, savings accounts and certificates of deposits were next at 14 percent and bonds trailed at 6 percent. In 2011 and 2012, gold was the most popular class.

"People tend to extrapolate from the last six months or a year ... but that truly does not hold now," Statman said. "They're extrapolating from the vivid, and what is still vivid in the minds of many people is 2008 and there is still shakiness. Yes, the stock market has gone up, but they just feel afraid that any moment now it will collapse."

To be sure, there are other, more logical reasons for the trend.

"Why don't people own real estate beyond their home? It takes a lot of money and it takes a loan from a bank to buy this," said Terrance Odean, a finance professor at the University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "The barrier to having a bank account is a dollar. Essentially, you need a couple of dollars to put in a bank account, but it's not a hard barrier. What's the barrier to buying gold? The threshold at which you can buy gold is much lower."

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Indeed, lower-income investors even picked plain-vanilla savings accounts and CDs over stocks, though they did list real estate as their second most-preferred form. Only bonds fared worse than stocks in the $35,000-and-under group.

"Gold is a separate issue. It's largely probably bad advice," said Odean, who noted that the metal is "heavily promoted" in media, and particularly in conservative outlets. "In general, their basic portfolios should be broad-based index funds of equities and perhaps bonds and not gold. But a lot of these people are not financially sophisticated."

Gold can have a place in investor portfolios but doesn't necessarily need to be an armageddon trade, said James DiGeorgia, publisher of the Gold and Energy Options Trader.

"Precious metals can move on an expansion of wealth," he said. "Precious metals don't have to be a hedge against disaster. It can also be a very good way of playing growth wealth in this country."

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox

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