Hong Kong: Investing In Today’s Uncertain Climate.

People reading my piece last month about the state of the world's economy may have detected a more pessimistic tone than in previous issues. This was not accidental. It came about as a result of the continuing Eurozone crisis in particular and other areas of concern in general that suggest it is going to be a considerable time yet before things start returning to normal.

In particular, one of my Spanish readers took umbrage at my rather negative comments on the position in his country. But the truth is that we see record levels of unemployment in Spain – the highest in Europe – the end of the construction boom and painful austerity measures adopted by the new government. The intention is to reduce the sky high deficit in what is after all a contracting economy – i.e. one that is clearly in recession. Developments since my piece last month have simply confirmed the negative outlook.

And when I say it will be some time before things start "returning to normal" I do not mean "back to where we were before". One thing this crisis should have taught us is that simply adding to the debt mountain to pay for current expenditure is plainly not sustainable. But as I also tried to make clear last month, it's not all unadulterated doom and gloom. There are distinct signs of improvement in certain economies – or should that be in certain sectors of those economies – that provide real evidence that growth is returning as opposed to a financial commentator's sense of optimism.

For example, there is real evidence that many of the stronger companies in Europe and across the Atlantic in the US are building up huge cash reserves. It is all too easy to be totally negative when reading reports on practically a daily basis that this company or that has either announced losses, collapsed into administration or filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection – the curious American convention that broadly speaking allows a bust company to carry on trading whilst conveniently ignoring its creditors, at least for a while.

The reality however is that capitalism relies on investment, mainly into companies be they private or public, and there is still a great deal of investment going on. As usual when discussing investment related topics in this column, anything I say is my personal view and should not in any way be construed as advice. So is this the time for those private investors who may have stood back from the markets in the last few years to start considering their investment options?

After all, individuals in the happy position of having savings or maybe cash released from sales of property, other assets or perhaps those in receipt of an inheritance are not going to see decent returns from bank deposits any time soon. True, some of the banking institutions are currently offering more interesting products whereby returns are considerably higher than the pittance offered on regular bank deposits, but with inflation in Gibraltar and other areas stubbornly high, due in very large measure to constantly increasing energy prices, the net return (that is the real increase in the value of one's investment after one deducts the effect of inflation) is still disappointingly low.

I was minded to have a look at the investment climate for private investors when preparing this piece, not least because of the publicity generated locally in recent weeks concerning the changes in the EIF rules here in Gibraltar. The acronym stands for Experienced Investor Fund and the original legislation was enacted here in 2005. The funds can be used to invest in a wide range of asset classes and can also be established using what is known as a Protected Cell Structure for even more flexibility. New rules have been agreed that will enter force next year. These will enhance significantly the appeal of the Gibraltar EIF which is of course good news for local firms and the employment they generate. For a summary of the recent changes that should lead to increased international interest in Gibraltar, I refer readers to the excellent article penned by Grant Thornton's Adrian Hogg in the May 2012 edition of The Gibraltar Magazine.

Gibraltar is well placed to compete in this area and with the infrastructure and industry experience to be found here, I can see significant growth opportunities. Gibraltar is of course a full EU member so can exploit its ability for investment firms to "passport" their services, something not so readily available to competing jurisdictions such as the Channel Islands and Cayman.

So this is all very well and good but let's step back a moment. Is an investment fund a suitable way for ordinary people like you and me if we are considering investing or is it just something for these "experienced investors". What about the rest of us?

There are many thousands of investment funds to choose from and they come in all types of shapes and sizes but the broad principles are straightforward. There are a number of very good reasons why a new investor might want to consider using a fund when thinking about their options.

By using a professional fund manager, an investor will benefit from years of experience and access to the world's financial markets that are simply not available to the general public. Depending on the fund, they may provide diversity by asset class or geography while the level of risk involved can be matched to the deemed risk appetite of the investor. Every private investor will be different. It is easy to see why someone a year or two away from retirement will have a very different investment outlook than a single thirty-year-old with no dependents (Incidentally, most 30-year-olds will probably say they have no spare money to invest anyway but, as I was told, "it's never too early to start".)

But would anyone want to invest in the markets these days? It would be all too easy to say no, stay away, but times of uncertainty are also times of opportunity. Certainly, careful selection is needed and above all professional advice should be sought right from the outset. It is altogether too easy to look, say, at the (fictional) Ruritanian stock market and see that it has gone up by 60% in the last 12 months. But if the Ruritanian currency – the Cowrie Shell – has depreciated against the pound by 50% over the same period then it starts look rather less attractive. Add to that the problem of researching the right investments in Ruritania, the dangers perhaps of nationalisation or civil strife, and one can begin to see the inherent risks involved in such international exposure.

So if you do wish to invest in that particular country, it is better to do so as part of a regulated fund in which you are investing alongside others. In this way, the costs and the risks are spread and there is a professional team to make sure that investments are properly managed, monitored and administered.

So here's my summary. If you are considering investment possibilities, there should always be markets somewhere that should be attractive. Many economies around the world, particularly in Europe, are still struggling and may do so for some time. Despite this, or maybe because of it, there are going to be opportunities for future growth or recovery. And with virtually zero returns available on deposits, if nothing is ventured then nothing will be gained.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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