These are bewildering times for Hong Kong investors. All the old certainties about where to invest have vanished. Property values continue to fall, if not plunge. The stock market has become unreadable, even for the professionals. Asian emerging market funds, once powerful performers, are now friendless, and valued at fractions of their former glorious levels. Even putting cash in the bank is not without its worries as the debate about the peg and its ability to resist the 'speculators' dominates the headlines. Those who are waiting for the good times to come around again are going to wait a long time - if by good times they mean the days of instant doubling of property values, tripling of share prices in weeks, if not days, and emerging market funds that behaved like hot stocks. When the fall of the Thai baht triggered the Asian crisis in July of last year, there was a widespread assumption that the tremors would soon fade. Those assumptions could not have been more wrong, and the only thing now clear about the direction of the world economy and the value of investments is that both are entering a period of uncertainty. This does not mean it is time for investors to buy gold, or lock the family fortune under the bed. Indeed, periods of volatility often offer the best opportunities for long- term gains, but responsible investment advisers should not be sending clients in search of fast profits. If there is one lesson from the last 12 months it is that the tortoise, slow but steady, will outmatch the hare, fast but prone to sudden and dramatic halts. Five years ago, the hot invest ment area was Asia - ex-Japan. Stock market indices were rising almost vertically, while the rest of the world plodded on. From February last year, the tortoise suddenly accelerated, while the hare collapsed, breathless. What was true of markets was true of funds. In 1993, $10,000 invested in Jardine Fleming's Eastern Smaller Companies Fund doubled within months. By end-July that investment was worth only $10,908. A lesser fund, which only kept pace with the index, would have slumped to $7,000. Performance-minded investors once would have laughed at, say, Morgan Stanley's Global Equity Fund. Not any more, for the same $10,000 invested in that widely diversified fund was, at end-July, worth close to $25,000. Of course, the faster moving fund gave investors an opportunity to cash out with good profits. How many took it? Timing is something even professionals cannot get right, which is why those attending the Private Investors Conference should be seeking savings schemes which aim to build up steady gains, rather than catching the big market moves. Prudence, diversity and a close watch on all investments are likely to be the investor's best friends. Before investors set out to chase the bull, they should be listening to those who preach the importance of getting the basics right. A balanced portfolio would include an affordable mortgage, adequate life insurance, a savings account for those rainy days, and a pension plan. On these firm foundations investors can then move into the more volatile stock markets. Even then, the message is one of diversity. Which means moving beyond equity-based instruments and looking into, say, fixed interest and money market vehicles, for these are tricky times for equities. Asia still smoulders, Japan remains in denial, Russia has crashed, Latin America is trembling - and the United States faces a political crisis, as well as concern that Wall Street is overvalued. Against that, there is undoubtedly a lot of value to be found in world markets. The sort of sell-off that has been seen in Asian stocks, for example, pulls down the good and the bad. Picking the funds that can invest in the good companies, or even finding the brokers who can pinpoint individual equities, will be the key - but patience will be required.