By Colin Barr
September 9, 2010

Is silver about to streak higher?

Silver’s price has risen 8% in the past month, recently topping $20 an ounce for the first time since early 2008. The rally comes at a time when gold has been hitting new highs, on the latest round of fears that crisis-crazed central bankers will destroy the value of paper money.

Silver remains far from its own peak, set 30 years ago at a time of high inflation and a hare-brained attempt to corner the market. Unless the wheels fall completely off the global economy, silver seems unlikely to recapture its record high of $49.45 again any time soon.

Even so, silver could take on a new shine in coming months, as a slowing economy prods policymakers further out onto an easy money limb and buyers ponder just how high gold prices can go.

“Silver has been kind of going along as the poor man’s gold,” said Howard Simons, a strategist at Bianco Research in Chicago. “The gold-silver ratio right now is telling traders to buy silver.”

Simons notes that at recent prices an ounce of gold can purchase 63 ounces of silver. Though this is hardly a historically unheard of ratio, the urge to buy the cheaper metal could push silver prices up as traders hedge their bets on gold.

This effect could get stronger if the fall gold season is as strong as some precious metals players expect it to be. Nick Barisheff, who runs precious metals funds for Bullion Management Group of Markham, Ontario, said gold prices tend to rise more in the last four months of the year than they do in the first eight, because of ordering by jewelry makers and other users.

He said a strong order book, together with continued fear about just what Fed chief Ben Bernanke and his colleagues might do to the value of the dollar, could push gold to $1,500 by year-end, up 19% from recent levels.

If so, he said, silver could find a surge of buyers as well that would push its 1980 record.

“With gold running up the way it has been, silver should be approaching $50,” said Barisheff.

Silver trading tends to be less volatile than that in gold. Unlike gold, which is viewed primarily as a store of value and a hedge against inflation, silver has industrial uses that keep it in demand when the economy is expanding.

But gold has appreciated much more than silver over the past three years, as the global credit bubble began unwinding and policymakers put in place programs that increase questions about the long-run value of currencies such as the dollar and the euro.

That has some silver bulls saying a big rally is only a matter of time.

“Until recently silver hasn’t been performing as well as it normally does,” said Barisheff. “It’s in catchup mode now.”

Yet even skeptics of the Bernanke approach to monetary management stress that there are limits of what investors should expect from silver. Most U.S. silver is produced as a byproduct of copper, lead and zinc mining, Simons notes, which makes you wonder just how precious it really is.

And even if silver looks cheaper than gold right now, he adds, the gold market is the one with the stronger fundamentals at a time when inflation is becoming a problem in fast-growing economies such as India’s — a country that, as it happens, has a long history of using gold as a store of wealth.

Bear in mind, Simons said, that “we’re not in any danger of running out of silver.”

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