Personal Finance: Brian Tora

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The Independent Culture
The collapse of confidence in Russia has been alarming and, unless their PM can pull a rabbit out of a hat, social unrest could become very serious

It had been my intention to write about smaller companies this week. Unfortunately, there has been the odd spot of bother on the other side of Europe.

Given the knock-on effect that the problems in Russia are delivering, it is going to be hard for any of us to ignore the implosion of their economy.

I suppose I can still write about smaller companies though - Russian companies have been getting smaller by the day.

Nobody really knows what happens when a country goes bust.

Arguably, the last time it happened to an otherwise civilised nation state was in the Weimar Republic in Germany.

We know what came out of that: the rise of National Socialism and, ultimately, World War Two.

We also entered a period of deflation and poor stock-market performance that affected the world markets.

The collapse of confidence in Russia has been quite alarming.

Queues outside banks attest to the lack of faith in the rouble - not that there are many dollars to buy with the money you may extract from a cashier.

But unless the new interim Prime Minister can pull a rabbit out of the hat, social unrest could become a very serious problem indeed.

Frankly, the system there was just not working. And if failures in governmental practices translate into an inability to pay wages in the burgeoning private sector, God alone knows what the outcome will be.

Part of the reason for world stock markets taking all this so badly is the realisation that the US and the IMF may not be able to hold the line.

This bodes ill for any future crisis. Moreover, the economic situation in Russia simply adds to the deflationary pressures that now exist.

Already, anticipated demand for goods from South East Asia has evaporated. The extent to which North America and Europe can continue to remain isolated from these problems is far from clear.

Providing some order can be returned to the Russian economic and political situation - and if the problems can be contained and not allowed to influence economic activity in other emerging countries - then the best we can hope for is a short, sharp downward blip, likely to be reflected in overall corporate profitability and world trade.

This may have the very useful effect of restoring valuation criteria to levels at which buyers, many of whom still have plenty of cash to spend, feel they can afford to dip their toes back into the market.

If, on the other hand, the situation is not contained, I am frankly concerned that buyers will stay away for longer than long-term investors will feel comfortable about.

I still remember 1974. The fundamental reasons behind the downturn then were nothing like as potentially serious as today. But then, governments were considerably less co-operative in those days.

Looking on the bright side, even 1974 was a downward spike which only really damaged equity investors for a relatively short period of time.

Then, social unrest was not an issue. Today it could be, and it is hard to know how markets will react.

I have never been so relieved that my pension fund is still entirely in cash. Next week, of course, I could feel very differently.

Brian Tora is chairman of the Greig Middleton investment strategy committee

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