Were you prescient enough last year to invest in Chinese ceramics, the stock market, Old Master paintings, U.S. stamps, rare books or oil wells?
If so, congratulations; your investments outpaced the cost of living. But if you were dazzled by gold, silver or diamonds -- all favorites of the previous year -- bonds or foreign exchange, you are behind the game now.
These are some of the findings in Salomon Brothers' latest annual report on commodities, collectibles and conventional financial assets. The most obvious change noted in the report is that, whereas twice as many investments ran ahead of inflation for 8 of the last 10 years, for the past 2 years the ratio has been reversed. Only 6 showed a better rate of return; 9 did not.
The New York brokerage firm found indications during the past year that tangible-asset prices are showing some deterioration for the first time in several years, "particularly in the commodity area, but even in the field of rarities." Despite that trend, Chinese ceramics, which have done consistently well over the past five years, headed the list again with 36.5 percent appreciation, followed by stocks gaining 25.3 percent despite their dismal record over the past decade.
The greatest losses were experienced by investors in silver -- off 26.6 percent after its brief romp up to $50 an ounce -- and gold, off 13.9 percent after flirting with the $1,000-an-ounce level. Diamonds, the report explains, show no gain or loss because the index is for rough, uncut stones and thus does not reflect the earlier speculative surge in investment-grade stones -- 30 percent rises were reported before the market broke - nor their descent.
As for the future, Salomon Brothers foresees housing and real estate performing at a level below par after having reached a plateau. A continued glut of oil may push black gold, the best performer throughout the decade, even farther down the list than last year's results showed.
Stocks have ceased to be as cheap after a 6 1/2-year bull market, although "continuing concern about inflation has caused investors to buy stocks because bonds are deemed bad based on their poor historical performance," the report said.