When's the Most Dangerous Time to Invest?
In less than 9 month's time I will reach my 40th anniversary of giving advice as an IFA. Jing's.
So as we apparently face another Financial Armageddon, this time thanks to an unstable Eurozone with the dreaded Drachma playing Hide and Seek for 2 years now with economists and learned commentators, what key lessons can I pass on to confused readers?
I started off in the early months of 1973, when we were told everything in the UK's investment garden was rosy. Easy peasy - you just bought shares in almost anything and couldn't go wrong. It was rumoured it was so simple to invest, even a monkey with a set of darts and a Financial Times could beat any index you threw at it. Come October though the World caved in.
By January 1975 the FT Index lost 70% of its value and the monkey had its darts confiscated. They say the darkest hour is just before the Dawn and January 1975 proved no exception. In weeks, shares bounced by over 25% and, over 12 months, the index doubled. Why the sudden turnaround, given the mess the UK economy was said to be in, it's hard to say. But, over the last 39 years the pattern repeated.
It happened in the 1980's at least twice, in 1984 which George Orwell would remember had he lived but, more famously, in 1987's October crash. I remember that well. Apart from anything else I had the misfortune of being on an Iberia jet trying to land in what seemed a hurricane at London's Heathrow on the Sunday night before Black Monday. It was a day when thousands lost their life savings and Sevenoaks should have been renamed Oneoak.
Prior to this crash, investors I recall were borrowing to buy more shares, in the way that, in the mid 2000's they borrowed vast chunks to stick into the latest one way bet - you dinnae understand Son, you cannae go wrong it's property, it disnae go doon. Aye right. When had I heard that before? There were loads of other times since, such as the 1997/8 Asian Contagion which also infected China, then Russia and, just to make a World Tour of it, infected Brazil, Argentina and nibbled away at Mexico for good measure. Nobody saw it coming.
Don't be mistaken, it was serious. In various Asian countries growth vanished and currencies fell 50% inside 2 months, Russia was bankrupt as was Latin America. But then what happened? Turns out the Armageddon never unfolded. The infected countries all recovered miraculously as did their stockmarkets. Once again, it proved to be the case that euphoria is more dangerous for investors than deep fear.
Exactly 5 years ago I was at Claridges in London to attend the Official launch of New Star's International Property Fund, launched we were told thanks to unprecedented demand from private investors for such an investment opportunity. I asked the presenter when in his experience did the majority call it right and didn't he think this was a high risk investment as a consequence? Don't be silly laddie, was his response. £700 million poured in. Investors have not been able for years to get out. The fund is worth £300 million today. Even worse is the experience of those attracted around the same time to so called Ltd Property Partnerships, heavily geared with cheap borrowings into the latest no brainer. So far most have collapsed. Investors have lost all their investments.
Don't get me wrong. I've made mistakes too. I got sucked in personally to the Dotcom boom - remember it? The new paradigm! Sitting on big juicy profits on 4 stocks, one up 8 fold in a year - I thought I'd hold on until the new fiscal year in April 2000 to save tax. Huh! In the March the crash happened. Guess what these 4 stocks lost? Try 95% and you are not far away.
But my message is this. The most dangerous investments are the ones that look the safest bets. Nobody thought of buying Government Gilts 20 or even 30 years ago when they represented - in hindsight - the best bargains. Income yields were fixed at anything up to 15% guaranteed. Now at 3% before tax and inflation, folks can't get enough. And when the World fixes itself, faster than you think, and interest rates rise, guess what's going to happen to the latest safe as houses home for your money? Time for a sharp exit.
Written for publication in The Scotsman
Saturday 23 June 2012