With the market in disarray and a second-half economic slowdown at hand, investors of various stripes may be considering initiating, or substantially adding to, a gold position. The key question, however, is how to most profitably, and most safely, gain exposure to the yellow metal.

Protection -- but from what?
First, let's be clear that as a general market hedge, gold's future performance is highly uncertain. From an inflationary standpoint, if a slack economy trumps the Fed's money printing of recent years -- and I believe that it will -- then one better hope that investors like gold as a deflation safe haven as much as they've taken a shine to it as an inflation hideout. Furthermore, those who count on gold to rise as stocks plummet have to believe that the next market rout won't be accompanied by the widespread asset liquidation that kneecapped gold prices following Lehman's failure.

Risks considered, gold could continue to outperform in coming years, volatility notwithstanding. Why? My colleague Christopher Barker has offered ten compelling reasons. Among them, I personally find most convincing the notion that investors (particularly central banks) will increasingly turn to gold as a monetary alternative. Importantly, such a psychological shift could occur completely independent of the price movements in consumer goods and industrial hard assets such as copper and oil.

Above or below ground?
OK, so gold may not be a surefire bet, but if you can't do without a piece of the action, you've basically got two choices (aside from purchasing and storing bullion or coins): buy a fund linked to the going price of gold, or invest in gold miners, either through a diversified fund or by buying shares of individual companies.

With the former, your risk is confined to the price of gold (assuming the futures market doesn't go kablooie). Even noted investor John Hathaway, whose market- and sector-beating Tocqueville Gold Fund primarily holds shares of gold miners, concedes that this is the safer, more conservative play. If that sounds like your golden cup of tea, I suggest that you consider Sprott Physical Gold Trust ETV (NYSE: PHYS) or Central Fund of Canada (AMEX: CEF) versus the more popular SPDR Gold Shares ETF (NYSE: GLD).

However, for the more aggressively minded gold bulls, exposure to the miners would appear to be a no-brainer. Following a period during which mining companies issued massive quantities of new shares, and escalating production costs matched or exceeded the rise in gold prices, miners now appear poised to reap the benefits of operating leverage -- so long as gold prices don't collapse.

To capitalize, either the Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSE: GDX) or the riskier Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF offer diversified plays. Alternatively, one could follow Hathaway's recent advice and take a look at Randgold Resources (Nasdaq: GOLD) or Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM), the latter of which could, according to Hathaway, eventually boost its dividend as it improves its return on capital.

A final word of caution
As I mentioned earlier, I am at best tentative regarding gold's usefulness as a broad stock market hedge. In that vein, simply selling short shares of the SPDR S&P 500 (NYSE: SPY) ETF would be the surer play. That said, the market's not going to zero, but the price of gold could double. Proceed accordingly.

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Fool contributor Mike Pienciak is short shares of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF but holds no financial interest in any other company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.