If there's a universal truth in investing, it's this: Anytime everyone believes something will happen, the opposite happens. When everyone thinks yin, markets go yang. Just ask the house flipper, the dot-com shareholder, or anyone who "invested" in a Beanie Baby.

When the whole market zigs, you should zag. And right now, the market is practically zigging all over itself for gold, the price of which hit a new record high in November. That news caught the eye of a couple of Bloomberg reporters in December; they pointed out that gold had returned only 44% since its last peak back in January 1980.

50 times better 
If you're thinking a 44% return for nearly 30 years' worth of investment sounds pretty meager, you'd be right. You'd have done better with your money just sitting in a plain old checking account. Even more dramatically, consider stocks. If you'd instead invested in the S&P 500 and reinvested your dividends, your investment over the same time would have risen 22-fold. Put another way, you'd have done about 50 times better with stocks than with gold.

That stat gets under the skin of forward-looking gold bugs, who believe that some mix of America's fiat currency, aggressive monetary policy, and epic deficit spending could make for gut-wrenching inflation.

That economic cluster bomb would be a boon for gold and hard assets at large, so the thinking goes, as they'd retain their relative value in the face of extreme inflation.

The best of both worlds 
I don't think gold investors are wrong to have those concerns -- just that they're making the wrong trade on them. There's a far better one based on the same concerns.

Consider the following facts:

  1. Gold is predominantly used as a store of value – not a generator of value.
  2. Stocks have crushed gold returns over the long haul.
  3. Dividend-paying stocks have outperformed non-dividend payers.

Returns of dividend-paying stocks haven't just beaten non-payers: They've crushed them. According to robust research by Wharton's Jeremy Siegel, portfolios of the highest-yielding stocks returned 4.8 percentage points higher annually, with less risk than baskets of the lowest-yielding stocks, over the years 1958 to 2002.

Higher returns, lower risk 
That's all pretty simple, and the fact that dividend payers are market-crushers is of little surprise to Motley Fool Income Investor members. But here's where gold comes in. You're concerned about deficit-driven inflation leading to rampant inflation? Fine. But don't invest directly in gold, or even first-tier gold producers like Kinross Gold  (NYSE: KGC) or Yamana Gold  (NYSE:AUY).

Instead, consider shares of high-quality, high-payout producers of necessary industrial commodities, which should also benefit from the same inflationary factors that would drive up the price of gold.

Think of what an ExxonMobil is to oil, an Ultra Petroleum to natural gas, or a PotashCorp to potash. Not to mention what Compass Minerals is to salt. Income Investor's James Early and I like to think of Compass as possibly the best little commodity play you've never heard of.

The best of both worlds 
Compass has quietly destroyed the market over the past five years, by selling two commodities you likely pay no mind to: salt and sulphate of potash (SOP), which is used in high-end specialty fertilizers. Compass is the largest salt producer in the U.S. and the U.K., and it practically mints cash by producing SOP at its low-cost solar evaporation ponds at the Great Salt Lake.

Unlike your typical natural-resource producer, Compass doesn't have to pour cash into finding new reserves: The company estimates it has nearly 100 years of reserves at most of its production locations. Incredibly, the same is also true of its potash reserves. Talk about a store of value. And on the inflation hunt, recognize that Compass has been able to raise prices at 3% to 4% a year over the past couple of decades, and it passed on another increase just last week.

Stocks 2010 
Not even factoring in its nifty value as an inflation hedge, Compass boasts three of the key criteria that James and his team at Income Investor seek out:

  1. Big dividends. Not only has robust empirical research proven that dividend payers outperform over the long run, but they pay you while you wait. The average Income Investor recommendation yields 4.1%.
  2. Big upside. We like to have our cake and eat it, too, recommending high yielders with lots of capital gains potential.
  3. Big moats. We're looking for businesses with multi-decade staying power. Cases in point: Southern Company (NYSE:SO) and Diageo (NYSE:DEO), two of only six stocks on Income Investor's Buy First list.

Compass is James' recommendation in the Fool's flagship annual special report, Stocks 2010. His recommendation from last year's report, Tenaris SA (NYSE:TS), which we co-wrote, is up about 119%. Stocks 2009 was a banner report for us, with all nine of our analyst team's recommendations -- including other major winners such as Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and Dolby Laboratories (NYSE:DLB) -- besting the market by an average of 59.3%.            

Two for the price of one 
You can read more about Compass Minerals and the nine other stocks featured in Stocks 2010, which comes free with new memberships to Income Investor. The average Income Investor recommendation has outperformed the market by 7 percentage points since the service's inception back in 2003. Just click here to try Income Investor -- you can cancel at any time.

This article was originally published on Dec. 14, 2009. It has been updated.

Senior Analyst Joe Magyer's favorite metal is Rearden metal. He owns shares of Southern Company and Diageo, both of which are Income Investor recommendations. Netflix and Dolby Laboratories are Stock Advisor recommendations. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.