Scared of heights? Then get out quick

The omens are bad. Steve Lodge asks if shares are safe bets
This time last year the stock market was hitting new peaks and pessimists were predicting that it was riding for a fall. But instead of crashing, shares have continued to soar.

If you'd ignored the doom-mongers and bought a Pep last summer (or, indeed, just kept your existing investments), you could be sitting on profits of as much as 30 per cent. In a single year that's a stunning return from the stock market. It far outstrips anything a building society has to offer.

But the warnings of a looming crash, rather than going away, have got ever louder. There have been parallels drawn with the run-up to the 1987 October stock market crash - the last big one - which was also preceded by a period of strongly rising share prices. This time around, share prices have risen almost uninterrupted for two and a half years - a rise of 60 per cent or more.

Interest rates are also firmly on the up, with each quarter point rise increasing the relative attractions of the building society and, in turn, potentially undermining shares. Any crash would probably still leave shares higher than this time last year, but if a longer-term bear market should set in, there could be further losses and shares could take a few years to get back to their present prices. And even if the stock market doesn't crash, it would be a brave investor who thought it might repeat its recent strong performance. Looking out for the rest of the year, then, there is probably more chance of losing than making money - and losses could be substantial.

What this means is that now is not a good time to be lobbing large amounts into stock market investments in the hope of catching the recent wave. Better instead to wait until prices have come back. Whether you should cash in existing investments, however, depends in part on what else you plan to do with the money, as well as any restrictions on those investments - for example if you have Peps that, once encashed are lost, or if you are committed to savings plans that will penalise you if discontinued.

Many people will have a range of privatisation shares that have performed strongly. If these were investments you had earmarked to cash in, say to help buy or move house sometime this year, you should almost certainly be looking at selling them now. But if your savings are put aside for the longer term, you are best off leaving them. Trying to sell and then buy back after a crash is a mug's game - investment timing is notoriously difficult, even for the professionals. You could sell and then miss the bounceback. And over the longer term the higher returns that shares should produce should more than make up for any crash.

If you are looking to cash in your shares, generally speaking you will need a stockbroker to sell them for you. There are a range of low-cost services with prices starting at around pounds 10 for shareholdings of up to pounds 1,000 - which may be particularly attractive for those with small numbers of shares in a range of privatised companies.

The very cheapest brokers operate by post; they will not sell until they have your share certificate. For example, the Share Centre (0800 800008), based in Tring, will sell shares in any privatisation or big company - those in the FT-SE 100 index - for 1 per cent of the value of the shares, with a minimum for each company of pounds 7.50. You will need to phone first to be sent a transfer form and then return it with your share certificate.

The risk with a postal service is that the price might crash between you sending off your certificate and the shares being sold. The Share Centre covers this by allowing sellers to set a target price below which their shares will not be sold.

If you want to sell your shares straight away you are probably going to have pay more. ShareLink (0121 200 2242) will allow new customers to sell shareholdings worth up to pounds 1,300 almost immediately for a flat pounds 20. (Beyond pounds 1,300 and up to pounds 3,000 you pay 1.5 per cent.) You give your details over the phone and say how many shares you want to sell, and then as soon as you put the phone down ShareLink goes and sells them "at best" or at no less than an agreed price. You then send your certificate in and, once it is received, you are sent your money. Caterdeal (on 01708 742288) offers cheaper

selling prices on its Phonetrade service but there is a registration fee of pounds 10 and you need to fill in a form. Prices are pounds 9 for shares in a company worth up to pounds 500, pounds 10 up to pounds 1,000 and pounds 17.50 up to pounds 2,000.

NatWest offers instant selling in 280 of its branches for a minimum of pounds 18 to pounds 20, depending on the company. You need your share certificate(s) and proof of identity. The sale proceeds are paid in days by cheque or directly into a NatWest account.

None of these services, however, gives advice on whether you should be selling in the first place - with stockbrokers, that costs even more.

q Moneyfacts, which provides our tables of saving and borrowing rates, has an instant "faxback" service giving full details of a range of low- cost, no-advice share dealing services. Dial 0336 400245 on your fax, then press the start key when prompted. Note though, the service costs 50p a minute and will take around eight minutes.