Q: I think it is great the way my Exxon Mobil Corp. shares have been doing, but it seems like this can't last. Should I continue to hold? -- K.V., via the Internet

A: Exxon Mobil is the largest firm in the oil and gas business at a time when global turmoil has pushed energy prices to record levels, which doesn't translate to either popularity or freedom from troubles.

Federal and state authorities have asked the company for $92 million to clean the remaining oil from the devastating Exxon Valdez tanker grounding of 17 years ago. The nation's largest oil spill emptied 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound and onto the beach.

Meanwhile, many shareholders are up in arms over the nearly $147 million paid last year to retiring top executive Lee Raymond in salary, bonuses and lump sum pension. In protest, they approved an advisory resolution that directors must win a majority vote to be elected. They also withheld substantial numbers of votes from directors who approved that package.

Another issue: Its employee pension plan is $11.2 billion short of projected obligations despite the fact the company has around $30 billion in cash and an AAA credit rating. The firm said it is in compliance with labor laws and its financial strength is the best pension security possible.

In order to meet the world's growing demand for oil, large producers have had to move to more expensive, higher-risk fields, which could reduce future earnings. And despite the recent price hikes, oil remains a highly volatile and unpredictable commodity.

Shares of Exxon Mobil (XOM) are up 14 percent this year, following gains of 10 percent last year, 25 percent in 2004 and 17 percent in 2003. Don't assume that oil stocks never go down: They declined 11 percent in 2002 and 10 percent in 2001.

Though it faces many challenges, being the biggest in its industry does give Exxon Mobil economies of scale. It remains the most profitable of the major oil companies and is active in repurchasing stock and dependably paying out dividends. It also has an easy time finding global partners.

The analyst consensus is that investors should stay put. The rating on shares of Exxon Mobil is a "buy," according to Thomson Financial, consisting of nine "strong buys," eight "buys" and four "holds."

Earnings are expected to increase 15 percent this year and decline a fraction next year, which is in line with the forecast for the major integrated oil and gas industry. The five-year annualized growth rate is predicted to be 8 percent, in line with its peers.

Q: Investing in gold seems to make sense these days. What's your opinion of Fidelity Select Gold Fund? -- .L., via the Internet

A: Remember that with this fund you'll be investing in the stocks of gold-mining firms, rather than the precious metal itself. It has a relatively small pool of stocks to choose from, many of them foreign, that stand to profit whenever gold prices rise.

The $1.5 billion Fidelity Select Gold Fund (FSAGX) has a one-year return of 69 percent, which ranks below the midpoint of precious-metals funds. Its three-year annualized return of 27 percent places it in the bottom one-fifth of its peers.

"Gold has a history of extraordinary volatility, and many of these stocks are in volatile emerging markets as well," said Jim Lowell, editor of the independent Fidelity Investor newsletter, published in Potomac, Md. "People look to gold as a safe haven, but it is a mistake to think investing in a gold fund is anything other than a very speculative bet."

He rates the fund a "hold" for aggressive investors seeking a hedge for other speculative vehicles in their portfolios, but also thinks it should constitute no more than 10 percent or 12 percent of individual holdings. He doesn't think it has any place in a conservative portfolio.

Daniel Dupont, former Fidelity analyst, has been portfolio manager since early 2003. He is willing to put money into smaller, more speculative firms and devotes a portion of the portfolio to other precious metals and minerals.

One-half of the fund's assets are Canadian and one-fourth are in the United States. It also has exposure in Australia, the United Kingdom and Peru.

Top holdings recently were Meridian Gold, Newmont Mining, Aber Diamond, Newcrest Mining, Barrick Gold, Cambior, Impala Platinum Holdings, Teck Cominco, Crystallex International and Compania de Minas Buenaventura. This "no-load" (no sales charge) fund requires a $2,500 minimum initial investment and has an annual expense ratio of 0.97 percent.

"Fidelity Select Gold has certainly earned its keep, but I would underscore that it is a speculative bet," Lowell said.

Q: I am considering rolling a 401(k) into a traditional individual retirement account. The IRA application asks for my net worth, total assets and tax bracket. Why must I divulge this information? -- B.N., Villa Park, Ill.

A: The IRA custodian is probably asking those questions on the application so that it can market additional financial products to you. It may provide a handy primer on what you'd likely be interested in and what you'd be capable of investing in.

"Because it is up to the IRA owner to determine whether the contribution is deductible or not, the IRA custodian doesn't actually need information that pertains to the income phaseouts for deductibility," said Beverly DeVeny, IRA technical consultant for Ed Slott's IRA Advisor in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

While answering those questions isn't required by the government, a custodian could decide not to open your account if you refuse to answer them, she said.

To obtain money from a 401(k) plan for a rollover, you must have a "benefit event," such as retirement, reaching age 59 1/2 or leaving your job. It is important to fill out paperwork properly and make sure a new IRA is set up to receive your money.

Andrew Leckey is a Tribune Media Services columnist. E-mail him at yourmoney@tribune.com.