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INVESTORS WOULD BE WISE TO BEWARE IN TRICKY FINANCIAL CLIMATE

Be careful out there!

That's the message savers and investors get over and over again these days when they seek advice on how to manage their money in an especially tricky financial climate.Stocks are way overpriced, bonds are behaving badly, and money-market interest rates are, in the words of one recent advisory, "pathetically" low.

Furthermore, the real estate boom is over, gold is dead, and collectibles of all types don't have rapid inflation to carry them along any more.

All in all, many experts say, it is no time to be taking big risks.

How does a person invest "conservatively" in a period when the nation's economy, or the world's for that matter, appears to be going through a long, wrenching transition to a future whose shape still can't be discerned?

Since the pursuit of that mission is an art, rather than a science, advisers say the question can't be answered fully in a sentence or two. But they have some suggestions to offer that bear consideration.

Two important precepts, most analysts agree, are to stay diversified and to avoid rushed choices prompted by a sense of having "missed the boat."

"Don't follow the crowd into the most popular of last year's high flyers," says Sheldon Jacobs in his newsletter The No-Load Fund Investor.

"We think 1992 will be a year of gains in the market, but it's not a year to bet the farm. So stay fully invested, but invest on the conservative side."

The steep drop in money-market interest rates is a major source of urgency for many investors, since it has drastically lowered the income they receive from their assets.

"Savers are all throwing up their hands and saying, `What do I do now?' It's a real dilemma," observes Jeff Thredgold, chief economist at the multistate bank holding company KeyCorp.

In their quest for answers, Thredgold says, people who are switching out of bank certificates of deposit into bonds or stocks may be "taking on an element of risk they don't understand."

Suppose you are a depositor at a New York savings bank with a CD that has just matured. The bank has put your proceeds in a savings account with a current return at 4 percent (and possibly headed lower still).

The bank in question is now making a special offer to such CD holders of a three-year CD at 6.5 percent simple interest. Would you take it?

Perhaps, if that deal would serve well to cover a pressing income deficiency. But perhaps not, if you were in a position to wait and see whether a better proposition might be available a few weeks or a few months from now.

What about a little innocent speculation? Given the tough choices facing investors right now, why not take a flyer on, say, a low-priced stock? Fine, say advisers, as long as you understand that all of the money you put into such a venture is at risk.

"Unfortunately, you can lose just as much on a $1 stock as you can on a $50 stock," observes George Putnam III, editor of the Turnaround Letter advisory in Boston. "Do well-known stocks really go to zero? You'd better believe it.

"We've seen several examples of this. Pan Am's stock traded around $1 for much of 1991. Then in September the company filed a plan of reorganization that left nothing for the stockholders. Today you would be lucky to sell it for a penny."