In these troubled times, safety first is the motto for many investors.
No guaranteed safety in financial safe havens
In these troubled times, safety first is the motto for many investors. Nobody wants to lose all their money in another banking, property, stock market or currency crash.
Yet the world is running out of safe havens. Cash and government bonds pay negative real interest rates. The US has lost its prized AAA-rating. Germany has been scarred by the eurozone horror show. The Swiss franc has been scuppered by its own central bank. Government bonds are a potential bubble. So is gold.
The old safe havens simply aren't safe anymore and as for the new ones, frankly, there aren't any. If any do emerge, they quickly turn into a bubble as desperate investors flood in.
The International Monetary Fund recently warned that the shrinking pool of safe assets could create further volatility in financial markets. So where in the world do you turn?
Safe havens aren't what they used to be, says Steve Gregory, the managing partner at the Dubai-based Holborn Assets. "The phrase 'cash in the bank' used to suggest invincibility, until US, UK and Europe banks had to be bailed out in the financial crisis. Savers now look for government guarantees when choosing where to put their deposits."
Cash is king, they once said, but that was before western central bankers slashed interest rates to record lows.
Even the best savings accounts struggle to pay more than 1 per cent or 2 per cent. Some accounts pay as little as 0.5 per cent. Many pay nothing at all. "With inflation at 5 per cent, your money will lose half its purchasing power in less than 15 years," Mr Gregory says.
Right now, cash guarantees only one thing: your money is falling in value. That's not what most people would call safe.
Structured investments juggle complex derivatives in an attempt to give you the best of both worlds: the higher potential returns of the stock market and the security of cash.
Most guarantee to protect 100 per cent of your capital, but Mr Gregory is sceptical. "We estimate that about 92 per cent will work satisfactorily, but 8 per cent will either fail altogether, or return less than you invested. We only recommend structured products to high-net-worth investors who understand and accept the risks involved."
A large number collapsed after the banking crisis, when shocked investors discovered they were underpinned by failed investment bank Lehman Brothers. Does that sound safe to you?
The old saying "as safe as houses" no longer holds true either. After the banking crisis, property bubbles around the world burst one after the other.
There was one notable exception, central London. It dipped briefly during the worst days of the crisis, but has risen steadily ever since, especially for properties in excess of £1 million (Dh5.9m).
Prices continue to rise, despite a punitive government hike in stamp duty to 7 per cent for properties over £2m, says James Hyman, a partner at Cluttons, the property consultants. "Buyers believe the property market's momentum will deliver considerable price gains over the coming years. The prime central London market is exceptionally buoyant, stronger than this time last year. Sentiment is positive across the board."
The London property market is still calling. If you can afford it.
Government bonds, especially US treasuries, are a renowned safe haven, but investors have been worrying about a bond bubble since 2009.
It hasn't burst yet, but as the US economy picks up it could rapidly deflate, warns Dan Dowding, the chief executive of IFAs Killik & Co in Dubai. "If financial markets and the macroeconomy continue to stabilise in 2012 and 2013, demand for US treasuries could fall."
Despite the danger, investors are paying a high price for bonds. Yields on inflation-protected US securities recently hit a record low, with a negative return of 1.08 per cent. "If the economy recovers and inflation picks up, investors will inevitably quit US treasuries and stop buying stocks and shares instead."
If that happens, the bubble could finally burst. If others follow, government bonds could prove a costly safe haven.
Gold is a strange kind of safe haven. It may be the world's oldest store of value, but its price can be hugely volatile. It has soared 136 per cent over the past five years. Anything that rises that quickly can fall just as fast.
Gold has dipped lately from its an all-time high of about $1,900. It could fall further if the US economy continues its recent revival, says Trevor Greetham, the director of asset allocation at Fidelity Worldwide Investment. "Gold is now one of the less attractive commodities. A pick-up in global growth will favour industrial metals like copper instead."
Gold could still hit $2,000 an ounce if the eurozone crisis turns even nastier. But does that make it a safe investment, or a speculative one?
For years, the US dollar was the world's safe haven currency. Yet last August, the US government came within a whisker of doing the unthinkable and defaulting on its debt obligations. Can we trust the greenback now?
The Swiss franc is another safe haven currency. Or it was until last September. In a bid to protect its export industries, the Swiss National Bank sank the overvalued franc by pledging to buy "unlimited quantities" of foreign currency. It plunged 9 per cent in 15 minutes. A safe haven isn't supposed to destroy your wealth that way.
The currencies of major commodity exporters such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Norway have done well lately, but David Kerns, the dealing manager at Moneycorp, says they are more risky than people realise. "The prices of raw material such as oil, gas and metals can fluctuate sharply, making so-called 'commodity currencies' shockingly volatile."
The desperate search for a safe haven has produced an unlikely contender. The British pound, which recently hit a two-year high against the euro.
"The UK has control over its own monetary policy and this has helped it negotiate the financial crisis more flexibly."
When sterling is considered a relatively safe haven, it is time to be worried.
Stock markets have never been seen as a safe haven, more like the eye of the storm. But in these strange times, they look a relatively solid bet, says David Kuo, from the stocks and shares website, Motley Fool. "Many strong, global blue-chip companies are sitting on a mountain of cash that they have so far been reluctant to spend. They are also paying attractive dividends of anything between 4 per cent and 7 per cent, with the prospect of capital growth on top."
Protect yourself by looking for solid, defensive stocks.
You can reduce risk by building a diversified portfolio of about 12 to 15 dividend-paying companies. "This should give you a regular income regardless of market conditions, which you can re-invest for capital growth," Mr Kuo says.
As other safe havens topple, dividends look relatively secure.
Diversification is the best safe haven, says Jamal Saab, the head of Mena at Natixis Global Asset Management. "The best way to manage risk, control volatility and withstand market swings is to diversify your investments across a broad range of sectors and asset classes, including shares, bonds, cash, commodities and property. People who invest heavily in, say, a single company stock or sector, rarely beat the benchmark and are taking a big risk."