You're just going to have to be careful - more so than in years past - because right now the line drawn between successful markets and markets that are in danger of collapse is treacherously thin.
Take the fashionable growth markets, the BRICs - Brazil, Russia, India and China - for example.
Dead WeightIt's been 10 years since Chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) Asset Management Jim O'Neill coined the BRIC acronym. His recommendation was certainly effective - one of the best of all time, even. But today, all four BRIC countries face problems, and their troubles illustrate the dangers of following investment fashions.
Just take a look:
- China appears the least troubled of the four BRICs. However, it looks to be facing a recession, inflation is approaching double digits and there is a massive bad debt problem in the banking system. Too much money has been invested in uneconomic rubbish - "malinvestment" as the Austrian school of economics calls it. My own guess is that China will do fine long-term but you probably don't want to invest until the size and shape of its problems is clear.
- India has a government that can't stop spending, inflation over 10% and huge corruption. Furthermore, its stock market is still pretty inflated. I wouldn't put much money there until the government changes. Contrary to what you read in the media, almost all the real liberalization progress came under the Vajpayee government of 1998-2004, which the Indian electorate then ungratefully threw out. I'd want an Indian government without the corrupt socialist Congress Party before I'd invest; only then could I be sure that Indian gains would not be poured down a rat hole.
- Brazil has been run by big-spending socialists since 2002 and has been immensely lucky to benefit from the commodities boom. Now the boom has topped out (probably temporarily) but its government is still overspending and has begun to harass foreign investors. Brazil is in big trouble if commodities prices fall.
- In Russia, Vladimir Putin will become President again next March. Need I say more? Like Brazil, Russia has benefited immensely from the commodities boom (in its case, primarily the run-up in oil prices). However, it treats foreign investors even worse than Brazil does, it is even more corrupt and it appears to be running out of money.
The Eurozone's debt problem could have been solved early on by throwing Greece out of the euro (a much deserved punishment). However European authorities have now thrown so much money about in such unproductive ways that it's doubtful whether the euro is even salvageable anymore.
A recession in 2012 seems unavoidable, although Germany may benefit from the problems of its trading partners (if it is not forced to bail them out). Well-run European Union (EU) members that are not part of the Eurozone, such as Poland, may also benefit from the chaos, although Poland's current foreign minister Radek Sikorski doesn't seem to think so.
Japan has done so badly for so long that it may be impossible to revive. If public debt were still at the level of a decade ago, Japanese shares would be a screaming buy, as the market is at a quarter of its 1990 peak. However, with debt around 220% of gross domestic product (GDP) and no sign of the country's budget problems being solved, it may be nearing the point of no return and eventual debt default. On the whole, it's best avoided.
Apart from the United States, that leaves one obvious rich-country market,