Muddling Through May Be the Best Option

08/13/2012 10:30 am EST

Focus: GLOBAL

It's tough being an investor these days. Interest rates are low and cash and government bonds are producing dismal returns. But it is possible to make a profit in these austere times—just don't expect a bull run, reports Harvey Jones of The National.

This is the age of austerity. Investors don't like it, but that's the way it is. Austerity is here to stay.

In lean times, you have to work a lot harder to generate a decent return. So where should you be putting your money?

It is tough being an investor right now, says Jeremy Batstone-Carr, the head of private client research at Charles Stanley Stockbrokers. "The glory days between 1983 and 2007, when stock markets were powering upwards, were a different world. We live in straightened times and that will continue for some years. Investors have to accept that."

With interest rates set to stay low, especially in the West, cash is a particularly austere investment. "If you leave money in the bank, its value will fall in real terms. Cash is only somewhere to park your money while deciding where to invest next," Batstone-Carr says.

Investors in another traditional safe investment, government bonds, are also backing a loser. "Strong demand in relative safe havens such as the US, UK, and Germany has pushed up the price of bonds and forced down the yield, the interest rate you earn, to record lows."

Last month, Germany sold bonds with negative yields for the first time ever. Investors were effectively paying the Bundesbank for looking after their money.

Given the dismal returns on cash and bonds, investors are being "strong armed" into stock markets, Batstone-Carr says. "They are piling into solid, cash-rich global blue chips, which pay steady dividends of up to 5% a year. These are relatively low-risk stocks, although there are always banana skins, as we saw with BP."

This strategy isn't going to repeat the blow-out bonanza of the great bull runs of the 1980s and 1990s. "Those days are still etched on investors' minds, but they aren't coming back any time soon. You have to be content with more modest returns."

Popular defensive stocks include British American Tobacco (BTI) and Imperial Tobacco (people still smoke in a recession), pharmaceutical firms GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Merck (MRK), and Roche (they still fall ill), telecoms giants such as Vodafone (VOD—people can't live without their mobile phones) and utilities such as water and energy companies (they still need the essentials).

These companies are solid, steady, unspectacular, and—relatively—safe. In austere times, that is a virtue.

Some investors may still be tempted to flee stock markets altogether, but selling after share prices have fallen is the worst thing you can do, says Richard Taylor, a chartered financial planner at Acuma Wealth Management in Dubai. "Even austerity doesn't last forever. If you are investing for the long term, which means at least five years, the message is to sit tight. We have been here before."

Despite recent strong growth, investors should avoid the US right now. It faces a great wall of uncertainty at the end of this year, known as the fiscal cliff, a wedge of pre-planned tax hikes and spending cuts that could cut GDP by a massive 4% in 2013. "With the presidential elections due in November, things are set to remain uncertain. My advice is to wait," Taylor says.

China looks a better prospect. "It is set to replace the US as the world's biggest economy. There will be short-term volatility, but in the long run, this is an amazing opportunity."

Taylor tips mutual funds First State Greater China Growth and Fidelity ASEAN, which invests in fast-growing South-East Asian markets such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia. However, he is more skeptical about other emerging markets. "India is a mess. Russia is too dependent on oil and gas. Brazil looks volatile. I would stick to China and Southeast Asia."

Percival Stanlon, the head of asset allocation at Baring Asset Management, also tips China to beat austerity. "The Chinese authorities are committed to shifting the economy away from the export model and towards consumer-led growth, but it will take time. While growth may remain sluggish over the next six months, China and the emerging world should outperform the developed world over the long term."

With the West desperately trying to print its way out of trouble through repeated bouts of quantitative easing, gold could glitter once again, Stanlon says. "The precious metal has underperformed in recent times, but it could start to move higher when quantitative easing gets sufficiently powerful."

Gold acts as a store of value when central bankers cheapen their currencies by printing more money. The price recently crept back above $1,600 an ounce, but this remains a speculative investment. When the recovery finally comes, gold could quickly lose its luster.

During the boom, property looked like a one-way bet. Then it was a one-way ticket to disaster. Now, well, it depends on where you buy. Popular global hubs such as London are now seen as a safe haven, says Bill Siegle, the senior partner at property consultants Cluttons.

"Central London continues to attract investors seeking financial stability and long-term growth," he says. "Sterling weakness has attracted investors from the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific regions, tempted by the large discounts from the market peak. Up to 40% of properties worth more than £2 million are sold to overseas buyers."

The Arab Spring has also turned Dubai into a safe haven. "Dubai is the region's trade and tourism hub. Its economy has experienced some turbulence, but the government forecasts 4% to 5% growth this year," Siegle says. "Pockets of Dubai's residential market are gaining traction."

London, New York, and San Francisco should all offer welcome respite from austerity, says Richard Bradstock, a senior consultant at real estate specialists IP Global in Dubai. "They are popular cities with very little space to build new property. Prices in New York and San Francisco have fallen up to 30%, but should recover as the US economy improves. All three are attracting money from the Far East, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong."

Kuala Lumpur should also benefit from the booming Far East. "Malaysia is a balanced economy and politically stable. It is an emerging market investment, but with much tighter legislation and regulation. Cheap, but secure," Bradstock says.

Every investor has to start by working out their attitude towards risk, says Jamal Saab, the head of Mena at Natixis Global Asset Management. "You have to strike a balance between different type of assets, to build a portfolio that matches your attitude to risk and can withstand extreme market conditions."

For most investors, this means a spread of cash, shares, bonds, property, and maybe a sprinkling of gold dust. None of these are a fast track to riches, but that's just how things are. Investors have little choice but to "muddle through," says Bob Doll, a senior advisor to investment managers BlackRock.

That sounds like a fitting slogan for these austere times.

Read more from The National here...

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