herald

Sunday 22 July 2018

Dan White: As markets crash, is there a safe place for your nestegg?

As international finance battles more turmoil, here is our lowdown on how to stash your cash

If French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the George and Mildred of international finance, thought that their meeting on Tuesday would calm the international financial markets, they were very much mistaken.

The markets have long since lost faith in such set-piece occasions. Investors wanted to see agreement on concrete actions, particularly an increase in the EU/IMF bailout fund and the issue of eurobonds, not more vacuous guff. When the pair failed to deliver on these key issues, the markets struck with renewed vigour.

This failure of the leaders of the two largest eurozone economies to agree on the basic steps necessary to get to grips with the current crisis leaves us little people wondering what, if anything, we can do to safeguard our few bob?

Well, the first thing to remember is that there are no longer any safe bets, only unsafe and even more unsafe bets. Bill Goss, the founder of PIMCO, the world's largest bond investor, puts it well when he describes it as "the least dirty shirt" syndrome.

The Irish banks and the Irish State have long since hit the buffers, relying on short-term emergency funding from the ECB to keep them afloat. Dutch bank Rabobank is now the only Triple A-rated bank with an Irish retail operation.

Other banks listed in the world's Top 50 Safest Banks ranking with Irish arms are Barclays, HSBC and the [UK] Nationwide Building Society. Unfortunately, of these only the Nationwide is readily accessible to retail savers.

Traditionally Irish people with some money to spare lobbed extra contributions into their pension funds. Even before this week's carnage that wasn't such a good idea. Not alone has Finance Minister Michael Noonan hit private pension funds with an annual 0.6pc levy, pension fund performance over the past decade has been absolutely dreadful, failing even to match inflation. If it weren't for the tax relief, which will almost certainly be cut in the next Budget, no-one in their right minds would put a penny into a pension.

One lesson of the past week is that, as we are totally at the mercy of the international financial markets, Irish savers and investors need to look outside Ireland for places to put their money. I have always been a believer that the best time to buy shares is when everyone else is selling. Despite the US losing its Triple A credit rating earlier this month, a handful of American companies including Microsoft, ExxonMobil (parent company of Esso), Johnson & Johnson and Automated Data Processing retain theirs.

These and other investment-grade companies operating in stable industries such as food, drink and natural resources are worth looking at. The downside is that, in the short-term at least, the share prices can go down as well as up.

Another possible option is short-term German government bonds, maturing in one, two or three years. While these pay minuscule interest rates, you are at least guaranteed to receive 100c in the euro when they fall due for repayment. Apart from being by far the largest economy in the Eurozone, Germany is now one of the few countries to retain a Triple A credit rating.

And as for gold, forget about it. With the price now close to $1,800 (¤1,260) an ounce, it's clear that we are in the late stages of a bubble.

At least Noonan has had the good sense to keep quiet. Unlike some of his predecessors, he seems to have recognised the reality that there is nothing much we can do about what is an international crisis and kept his mouth shut. Cute boy Michael!

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