Foreign Exchange Market

Just hang in there

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am


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Strangely, it is often the case that the hardest and the easiest thing for investors to do is ... nothing. It can take restraint and nerve to simply sit on existing investments without being tempted to try for better returns. However, many investors simply do nothing because they are lazy or gripped by uncertainty.

Other investors loathe inaction, although the past year has amply demonstrated that doing nothing is often far better than doing something. There have, for example, been a number of times when the temptation to plunge into equities seemed irresistible, yet most of the world's stock markets have ended either with anaemic price rises or in negative territory.

Last year was also a time when gold buffs looked as though they were finally to be vindicated, as the gold price touched a high of US$1,920 an ounce in September and has declined ever since, albeit with spikes and spurs.

Gold has ended the year up about 8 per cent, which would be good news for anyone who bought the precious metal at the start of the year and simply sat on their holdings, but life is rarely that simple, and all too many investors piled in as the price started its heady climb.

In the currency market, many pundits began the year forecasting the downfall of the US dollar (and by implication the Hong Kong dollar since it is pegged to the American currency), but it turned out to be quite a reasonable year for the dollar, especially against the euro, but even against the apparently very strong Australian dollar.

So, Hong Kong investors who clung onto to their dollars have no reason to complain, even less so if they had invested in the yuan, which appreciated at a greater rate despite government avowals of keeping a rein on the currency's value.

It's a different story for Hong Kong's all-time favourite investment - property. Prices had been rising steadily since the second quarter of 2009, but they began falling towards the end of the year.

Domestic property prices led the way, quickly followed by the office sector.

Owner-occupiers need not feel too dismayed by this trend because the situation here is wholly unlike that in the US and Europe, where property owners not only found themselves sitting on dangerous amounts of negative equity, but were also facing demands for top-up payments from the banks, which had recklessly loaned the money in the first place.

Banks here are far less careless. This is bad news for anyone hoping to get on the property ladder, but offers a strong case for inaction for those already in the market.

More generally, investment inaction is challenged by the growing emergence of appealing valuations, especially in equity markets. And volatility, as every investor should know, can also spell opportunity.

So, this is the time for the pundits to tell us what to do in the coming year and for the snake oil salesmen to emerge with tales of untold riches.

Telling investors to do nothing lacks panache and, therefore, seems far too uncertain to be worth listening to.

The truth is that general advice to investors is of only marginal value because one size does not fit all; and with the levels of uncertainty today, the clarion call for action will not suit everybody.

Investors who are in the equity markets simply need to know that, if they prefer to do nothing, the overwhelming history of these markets is that, despite all forms of volatility, they perform better than other markets in the long run.

Hong Kong people who have bought their homes and offices should not spend their evenings fretting over downward price movements, because they own property in a place where land is at a premium and the demand for property will ultimately reassert itself.

Meanwhile, the property they own has a valuable utility. And although money deposited in bank accounts is earning a pittance, it remains in a local banking system that looks pretty solid.

This, then, is where we are unless Armageddon comes, in which case all bets are off.