There's a note of holiday cheer in the air as investors convince themselves that the United States is in better shape than once feared, that Europe may actually figure a way out of its mess and that China will glide to soft landing.
Still, it's plain to me and my investment colleagues that 2012 is not going to be the year of the bull. There are too many risks, too many unanswered questions. The range of possible outcomes has rarely been larger.
The coming year promises to be just as convoluted as the one that's about to end. A massive bout of debt "deleveraging" is ready to rip through the global economy as governments and consumers are forced to rein in their deficits. The effects will be felt by everyone.
How do you make money in this environment? Here are 10 investing themes we are following closely:
1. U.S. multi-family housing: Home ownership rates are declining while tight vacancy rates are providing good support for rents.
2. Asian consumers: Emerging markets are growing wealthier and investing in companies that serve their burgeoning middle classes will provide many wealth-building opportunities.
3. Dollar/discount stores: In North America consumers are becoming more frugal. Deep discount retailers are reaping the benefits.
4. Energy infrastructure: Pipelines and similar firms deliver strong free cash flow yields and benefit from high barriers to potential competition.
5. Gold mining stocks: They're undervalued and are raising their dividends.
6. Water delivery services: The World Bank estimates that global agriculture will require up to 45 per cent more water over the next two decades.
7. Tobacco/beverages/movies: These sectors are where people spent their time and money in the 1930s. If times turn tougher, we could be ready for a repeat.
8. Utilities: Their yield and pricing power make for a potent combination.
9. Food products: You still have to eat.
10. Home improvement/gardening: Aging boomers are spending more time at home and dollars are going to flow to sectors that service this cocooning trend.
To be sure, good investing requires more than just picking the right themes. Choosing the appropriate asset mix is equally vital.
If you had put all your eggs in the S&P 500 basket a decade ago, your average annual return would have barely exceeded 1 per cent a year in U.S. dollars. But had you put 40 per cent of your portfolio into bonds back in 2001, your blended return would have been very close to 6 per cent a year.
So it is crucial to be diversified. There are also two long-term trends to keep in mind.
First, there is a growing shortage of a stable income-paying investments. Bond yields are pitifully low and dividend yields for the market as a whole are not that much more impressive. All of that speaks to the swelling appetite among investors for what I call SIRP – safety and income at a reasonable price. You want to own stocks that can deliver SIRP, not only for their inherent benefits, but also because their scarcity value is going to drive up their prices.
Second, as the rating agencies downgrade entity after entity, the global list of havens is dwindling. Again, investors are going to be willing to pay up for anything that can deliver safety in these volatile times.
Given these factors, we believe your dominant focus in 2012 should be on finding investments that can offer both capital preservation and safe income, whether that be in bonds, hedge-fund strategies or reliable dividend-paying stocks.
None of this is exactly new, of course. But building a diversified portfolio, concentrating on quality companies, and looking for ways to generate stable income at reasonable prices are themes that seem particularly appropriate for what could be a tumultuous 2012.
Yes. Virginia, there are ways to earn a return in a volatile, uncertain, deflationary environment.