Despite good days here and there, things in the United States aren’t all that wonderful. At a time of great uncertainty here, the standard advice is to seek safety and to protect yourself against inflation and the almost certain future decline of the dollar. One traditional “safe” investment is bonds, especially Treasury bonds. Another haven is foreign stocks or foreign-company mutual funds, and — for the more venturesome and sophisticated — foreign currencies. Then there are commodities and “hard assets” such as gold, silver, copper, oil and diamonds that will presumably hold their value if the dollar’s decline continues and inflation rises.
None of those options — bonds, foreign stocks and currencies, and commodities — feels even remotely safe these days. But don’t despair. I do have one strategy that you might find useful and that I’ve adopted myself. We’ll get to it in a bit.
For an example of how wild and crazy the investment world has become, take a look at the U.S. stock market (assuming that you have a stomach strong enough to withstand the lurching). For the four trading days of Thanksgiving week, a normally sleepy holiday period rarely associated with turkey markets, the S&P 500 fell almost 5 percent. The next week it rose 7.4 percent. Then it ran up nicely, then down, and when last seen was about back to where it started the year. Whipsaw City.
One day the news out of Europe is dire — the euro is doomed, as are many European banks, with toxic fallout certain to hit the U.S. economy like a radioactive financial cloud. Markets swoon. Panic reigns. The next day there’s a supposed fix. Markets soar. Tomorrow or next week, who knows?
The U.S. economy, especially the job market, is also almost impossible to predict. Big American companies — make that big, U.S.-based companies, because “American” implies that the companies feel some loyalty to this country — are collectively showing record profits and record levels of cash but aren’t doing much hiring here. Thanks, guys.
That brings us to Washington. Those of us who longed for divided government — to stop politicians in our nation’s capital from going to extremes in either cutting or boosting taxes and regulatory levels — never wanted things to be this divided. We don’t have divided government; we have dysfunctional government, and at a time we can ill afford it.
With all this bad stuff going on, how do you wrap your head around investing? By doing your best to pick investments whose odds are in your favor — as opposed to investments that are popular and have already had a big run-up.
Three years ago, I said in Fortune’s 2009 Investor’s Guide that buying the U.S. stock market was a really good idea for someone with financial staying power and a five-to-seven-year time horizon. I considered that an easy call — though it wasn’t easy to summon up the nerve to do it, given the gloom and doom prevailing at the time. The S&P was at 870 when I wrote, fell to 673 in March 2009 and has since almost doubled.
But because the broad U.S. stock market is substantially higher than it was three years ago, it’s riskier. Then, I considered it a can’t-miss. Now it’s a who-knows?
Okay. Before I tell you what you might consider doing with your money, let me tell you what I think you shouldn’t do (unless you’re a pro, in which case you presumably need no advice from me). Treasury bonds? Forget them, unless you want to lock up your money for years at laughably low rates and are willing to suffer substantial losses. Long rates are artificially low because the Fed has been buying tons of long-term securities to force down rates, and safety-seeking capital has poured into Treasurys, too. But someday the Fed will dial back, the flight capital will leave, and rates will rise.
Let me give you a small example of what even a modest rate rise could do. Say you own a 30-year Treasury currently yielding 3 percent. If rates rise to 4 percent a year from now, your bond’s market value will drop 17 points — almost six years of interest. Rates have to fall to 2.2 percent for your bond’s value to rise 17 points. What are the odds of that happening?
In last year’s issue of Fortune’s Investor’s Guide, my colleague Shawn Tully said what I’m saying now. I totally agreed with him. But because of the aforementioned purchases, yields on long Treasurys have fallen since then, and their market values have risen. In fact, for the 12 months ended in November, long-term Treasurys were the best-performing asset class of the 48 tracked by Aronson Johnson Ortiz, a Philadelphia money manager. The Barclay’s long Treasury index returned a huge 21.3 percent, triple the 7.1 percent return of all U.S. stocks. But for 20 percent-plus returns to continue, long Treasury rates have to fall close to zero within a few years. Not likely.
The Fed’s attempts to force down interest rates to revive housing and the general economy have an unfortunate byproduct: eviscerating the income of savers, such as retirees who supplemented their Social Security checks with income from CDs and short-term securities. But shooting for higher income by buying long-term securities at current interest levels is incredibly dangerous.
As for foreign stocks and currencies: You want to deal with the instability of the euro? Try to figure out what goes on in Europe? Or with the European Central Bank? Good luck — you’re braver than I am. Jon Corzine was real brave at MF Global, which didn’t work out too well.
And commodities — well, when you see gold being marketed everywhere, the game’s pretty much over. If you had a time machine and could buy commodities at what they fetched three years ago, they’d be a great investment. At today’s prices, not so much.
Now that I’ve said what not to do, what’s my investment idea? It’s simple. And it’s totally not exciting for those of us who enjoyed the days of superstar money managers and a U.S. market that returned 20 percent a year from August 1982 through March 2000.
After having foolishly put money into a once-hot stock mutual fund last year, I’m now into boring. I’m buying individual blue-chip U.S. stocks (none of which are banks) that pay dividends. Some are multinationals, which give me exposure to rapidly growing foreign economies and hedge my dollar risk. (And, no, I won’t give you any names.) I’m looking for singles, not home runs. My seeking-singles portfolio, which has produced a small loss thus far, is appropriate for me because I can afford the risk. You have to determine whether it’s appropriate for you.
This isn’t exactly an original approach. In fact, it’s become a cliche among the cognoscenti. But you know what? Just because something is a cliche, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
Sloan is Fortune magazine’s senior editor at large.