It's hard to imagine the public's view on precious metals back in the early 2000s, back when companies like Sun Microsystems, and InfoSpace (INSP) still dominated investor attention, oil traded at $30 a barrel and gold as an investment not only wasn't followed, but was practically unknown.

Over the course of the following decade, the entire asset class transformed. Gold (and gold stocks) soared, turning a onetime investment backwater into the market's most sought-after asset. Gold has now been up for 11 years in a row.

With those strong returns came a proliferation of gold-following funds. Back in 2001, Central Fund of Canada (CEF) was about the only pure-play exchanged-traded means for stock investors to allocate to the yellow metal. Since then, innumerable new products have been launched, including funds like ETFS Physical Asian Gold Shares Trust (AGOL), which holds physical bars in Singapore, and Power Shares DB Gold Double Long ETN (DGP) which offers a double-leveraged bet.

What also changed was the public's level of comfort, not to mention portfolio allocation, with commodities and other alternatives. The same investors who in 1999 questioned owning anything besides Cisco (CSCO) and Microsoft (MSFT) were, by 2010, allocating as much as 25% of their portfolios to gold. (Microsoft is the publisher of MSN Money.)

The changing political landscape: more regulations, taxes, spending and demands for sacrifice (not to mention a weaker dollar) have also given people more of a fundamental reason to hold.

Physical gold satifies an emotional need as much as a financial one, a nuance tapped by companies selling bullion who romanticize gold as "something you can hold in your hand."

As we've pointed out over the years, gold's benefit as a portfolio diversification has ebbed. Recently, gold has tended to rise and fall along with stocks, acting like a risk asset itself rather than a hedge against them.

As investors, we can't afford to play favorites or fall in love with any asset. Facts are facts, and the reality of how market prices act always trumps how we think they should or hope they might act. Nothing is sacred.

And in the past few days, even the metal's most ardent fans have noticed that gold stocks are showing considerable weakness, with a slew of influential and widely owned names nipping new yearly lows.

Take Barrick Gold (ABX), Eldorado Gold (EGO), Gold Fields (GFI), AngloGold Ashanti (AU) and Newmont Mining (NEM), which are all at early to mid-2010 levels. Iamgold (IAG) trades where it did back in the summer of 2009.

As represented by the Market Vectors Gold Miners (GDX) ETF, gold stocks appear to be among the market's weakest, with the fund trading far below its 200-day moving average, even in a strong first quarter for risk. More telling is that smaller, more speculative gold stocks are doing even worse. The Market Vector Junior Gold Miners (GDXJ) ETF, which follows them, is down by nearly 50% in just the past year.

Trading is, first and foremost, observation. If you look for gold stocks doing well right now, you'll discover that they're nearly impossible to find. Of course, companies are also influenced by management and labor issues, and not just by the metal itself.

The longer-term correlation is self-evident, however. For most of the past three years, gold stocks led the metal higher, a relationship that began to deteriorate last fall as stocks slipped.

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Now gold stocks are at yearly lows, and even longtime fans of the metal should heed the objectively worrisome signs.

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