NEW YORK — Gold futures briefly rose above $900 an ounce Friday for the first time as high oil prices, a weak dollar and fears of a U.S. recession led uneasy investors to keep buying the precious metal.
An ounce of gold for February delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange jumped $6.50 to $900.10 in morning trading, an all-time high and a psychologically important milestone. Gold later slipped to $898.70 an ounce on profit-taking but remained in record territory.
"It's a reflection of market sentiment: Gold is a hedge against uncertainty and right now it's the best bet," said Carlos Sanchez, a precious metals analyst at CPM Group in New York. "None of the other investment options look that great and gold does."
Still, when adjusted for inflation, gold remains well below its all-time high. An ounce of gold at $875 in 1980 would be worth $2,115 to $2,200 today.
Gold has had a meteoric rise the past year _ rising nearly 32 percent in 2007 _ boosted by a falling dollar, rising prices for oil and other commodities and increased Middle East instability. Those trends have lifted the metal's appeal as a haven; gold is seen as a safe investment in times of political and economic uncertainty around the world.
Also driving gold higher was Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's pledge Thursday to cut interest rates to boost the economy, which some fear may be sliding toward recession amid turmoil in the housing and credit markets.
Lower interest rates tend to depress a country's currency and drive investors to shift funds to hard assets, like gold. A cheap dollar can make commodities more attractive as an alternative investment, and can also raise demand from foreign buyers as their currencies gain strength.
"Concerns of a recession will keep pushing up gold prices," Sanchez said. "Depending upon what happens in the economy and in the Middle East, we could see gold testing $1,000 an ounce, maybe even this quarter."
Hedge and pension funds, along with other long-term investors, also flocked to gold as the mortgage and credit crisis in the U.S. intensified.
"The funds are really heavily at play ... The momentum with gold is almost like mania. We keep wondering how high it will go," said Jon Nadler, an analyst with Kitco Bullion Dealers in Montreal.
Investors looking to get in on the gold rush can expect continued volatility for the rest of the year, said Nadler, whose firm forecasts a trading range of $750 to $950 an ounce.
The steep rise in precious metals will also mean consumers in the United States _ the biggest buyer of gold after India _ can expect to pay higher prices for gold earrings, bracelets and other jewelry.
"People are going to feel that sticker shock when they go down Fifth Avenue," Nadler said. "You'll start seeing the increase reflected as early as Valentine's Day."