There’s gold in them thar funds. And copper and oil and lumber …

So goes a current marketing pitch from the mutual fund industry. With commodities prices soaring and Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan concerned about inflation, some fund companies are urging people to protect themselves against higher prices by putting money into mutual funds that specialize in commodities.

Nothing new in that for investors who can tolerate a lot of volatility. There are dozens of gold and natural resources mutual funds that have been around for decades, most of which invest in stocks of gold mining firms, oil producers and timber companies. Gold funds in particular have been favorites of investors who are alarmed about the economic future and see such funds as the next best thing to owning the precious metal itself.

But several mutual fund companies say commodities these days aren’t just for the sky-is-falling crowd, and that precious metals, oil and paper deserve a place in the portfolio of any investor who sees inflation ahead. Further, more fund providers are introducing portfolios that invest not in the stocks of commodity-related companies, but in the hard assets themselves through various financial instruments that track commodity prices.

Merrill Lynch & Co.Mellon Financial Corp.’sOppenheimer Real Asset/A (QRAAX) was launched in 1997 and has returned an average 18.1% a year during the past five years, a period during which the overall market has been virtually flat.

Pimco Funds, a unit of Allianz AGPIMCO Funds:Commodity Real Return Strategy/B (PCRBX) in November 2002 and the fund jumped 29.1% last year, slightly ahead of the S&P 500-stock index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In little more than a year, the fund has grown to more than $2.1 billion in assets.

Here is how the price-tracking commodity funds work: Rather than buying stocks of companies, or buying actual hard assets such as gold, the funds purchase futures, options and other financial instruments in a mix designed to mimic a broad commodities index. Since the outlay to buy the financial contracts is small, the rest of the funds’ assets are invested in fixed-income securities, which essentially serve as collateral accounts for the highly volatile financial instruments. When the instruments lose or gain in value, the swings are tempered by the bond holdings.