Fortune favours the brave

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2011, 12:00am


It has been a quarter of a century since the second Big Bang, the sudden deregulation of financial markets which included the abolition of fixed commission charges and the end of open-cry trading at the London Stock Exchange.

What followed was a boom in share ownership, bond and currency trading, and a herd-like mentality that led all to believe there was gold in the hills. Everyone could make money by trading and economies would - give or take the odd blip - continue to grow.

But 25 years on, there is a chilly breeze blowing through all those beliefs and no shortage of doom mongers saying that Europe has an uncertain future with assets, be they property or shares, facing a decade of wealth stagnation.

Traditionally, city commentators find themselves falling into hyperbole, scattering their business briefings with talk of new economic ice ages, premium risk meltdown and a total euro zone GDP contraction.

Certainly, while there have been many market and economic downturns since 1986, most, like winters, tended to be short-lived and, even at in darkest days, always lead to a slow turn to spring and later a warm and sunny summer.

But with trillions at stake, and the politicians in Greece, Spain and Italy already being put to the spike, there are few bravehearts willing to predict where fortunes can still be found. Italy, the third biggest economy in the euro zone, saw its cost of borrowing shoot up as its debt mountain was deemed unmanageable as a result of misrule by ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Sentiment ranges from euphoria - when it appears the European Central Bank has negotiated a real bailout to the most beleaguered countries - to deep despair, when those trillions of euros don't seem to be enough.

Investors are lying low, especially those from Asia. But the advice to those who are considering keeping their cash under their bed is, if you can keep your head, there are good investments to be had.

Financial commentator Michael Wilson, who was business and economics editor at Sky News for 20 years, says all the talk about a lost decade is nonsense. He says: 'Capitalism as we know it is not about to finish. Investors are no doubt scared. People need to eat, keep warm or cool and watch the TV. Those are the fundamentals, which never change.' He suggests the canny investor look to the 'emerging' economies in which to invest, 'from little to really big ... and that's where I'd go'.

His shopping list: 'First, go defensive and never mind the nationality of the stock. Food, pharmaceuticals, utilities and retail. In particular, retail, which is trying to get into the frontier markets of Africa. But, for example, Nigeria will be the fourth biggest country on the planet by 2020.'

Second, identify stocks which have a good historical record, which have good, or have increased, their dividends. If you reinvest the dividends then, long term, you'll reap the rewards. The statistics are all public. If you need some safety but want to stay with the principle, then invest in an equity income fund. That spreads the risk, but of course lowers the rewards.

'Overall, now is a great time to buy, because fortune favours the brave.' It is a sentiment that is echoed by David Raif, partner at the leading global intermediary to the wholesale financial markets, BCG. However, he is wary of bonds and currencies, and says equities still represent the best asset class out there, provided investors do their homework. 'Balance sheets for companies are the best I have ever seen,' Raif says. 'Companies are lean and efficient, and if they are good companies they are paying good dividends. That's where the money is.'

He suggests looking at mining, energy and even technology stocks, and be prepared to be bumped around a bit in the short term. 'Don't be surprised if stock falls 15 per cent in six months,' he says, But longer term, you will make money, except that is if you invest in Spain, where Raif is extremely wary.

He explains: 'Everyone is looking at Italy and saying that the yields on their bonds are not sustainable, but that ignores the fact that Italy is a very rich country. We are talking 10 trillion euros that the wealthy in Italy have, so if they had to they wouldn't need to get their debt bought by other nationals. But in Spain, with their huge level of unemployment, it is difficult to see how they can manage themselves out of this mess. They are fundamentally a poor economy and so I wouldn't buy stocks or property, either there or in Greece.'

Many analysts were reluctant to give their opinion since events in Europe are moving so fast and are so reactionary but, along with Wilson, Raif insists that Europe will not be allowed to fail.

'There is too much riding on it, but I do think Germany will set some fierce ultimatums, and that we will not see anything settled until at best 2014.'