Friday, 13 December 2013

Uncertainty is still the only certainty

Sometimes you come across data that seems to capture the current mood.  This was the case with a survey by an investment firm showing that 32% of wealthy investors plan to increase their holdings of cash over the next 12 months.  This change in asset allocation toward cash is strange considering some investments such as stocks are having a stellar year while returns from leaving money in the bank have been dismal.  This high level of caution shown by investors, who typically have advisers telling them where to put their money, highlights the level of uncertainty faced by those trying to invest their money.  Yet with a number of possible hiccups on the horizon, cash seems to be the least bad of a poor range of options. 

The key concern for many investors is the upcoming reduction (so-called tapering) of bond purchases by the Federal Reserve.  Improvements in the US job market are expected to see the Federal Reserve cut back its monthly purchases of US$85 billion worth of bonds in the next few months.  One of the side-effects of this monetary policy has been to push investors away from bonds and into riskier assets such as stocks which has helped to lift the S&P 500 up 26% so far this year to record highs.  The actions of the Federal Reserve have grown to be the dominant factor in the direction of share prices with investors placing more stock in announcements from the central bank than data on the strength of the underlying economy. 

There has been a debate raging over the extent of the influence of the Federal Reserve with some degree of distortion inevitable considering the scale of the bond buying operations.  Share prices could be overinflated and a sharp fall might be necessary to find their correct value.  Alternatively, any changes from the bond buying end may be minimal and it may just be worries about what might happen that is scaring off investors.  Some experts argue that it is good news that investors are holding a lot of cash as it suggests that shares are not yet overpriced and this cash may still flow into the stock market over the next year.  However, in this scenario, the smart money would already be invested in stocks. 

The uncertainty is such that investors are shunning higher returns from stocks for much lower pay-outs from leaving money in their bank (the best efforts of Your Neighbourhood Economist resulted in yours truly being locked into cash for two years to eke out a miserly interest rate of 2.0% through a UK savings account).  Among the few certainties for investments over the next year or so is that a considerable amount of volatility is likely as investors try to figure out what the Federal Reserve will do next and how other investors will react.  Great if you like investing to be like a roller coaster ride, but the rest of us may be better off settling for meagre returns from our banks.  

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