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Fearful that inflation may be accelerating, small investors have begun pouring millions of dollars into gold mining shares and the mutual funds that own them, according to Money magazine's Small Investor Index.

Over the past four weeks, individuals have stashed some $326 million in gold funds, according to AMG Data Services of Arcata, Calif. By contrast, small investors had pulled $76 million out of such funds in the previous eight weeks.For example, two gold portfolios with $528 million in assets run by the United Services fund company attracted nearly $45 million in new money in the past month, while Lexington Research's three precious-metal funds, with $369 million in assets, got a $43 million cash infusion.

Prescient investors who led the move back to gold, a traditional hedge against rising prices, have already been handsomely rewarded. Despite a small drop for gold last week, the Oppenheimer Gold & Special Minerals fund has gained nearly 9 percent since Aug. 1, while United Services World Gold has soared a staggering 18 percent.

What's more, many precious-metals experts say the outlook for gold stocks and funds remains bright. Says Charles LaLoggia, editor of Special Situation Report newsletter, "Inflationary pressure could boost gold from its current $390-an-ounce price to $420 or more within the next 12 months." Even that modest gain, analysts say, could dramatically increase mining companies' profits, sending their share prices up 25 percent or more.

Last week, the Money index, which tracks the typical individual's holdings, rose $94 to $46,807. Stocks gained $101, and bonds declined $13. CDs and money-market funds chipped in $10. Gold lost $4.