Private Investor: Don't catch a cold in this difficult time for markets

Oh dear. Just when I had begun to entertain hopes that the FTSE 100 was at last rewarding us long-term investors, things started slipping again. True, the big index is up by some 60 per cent on its nadir at the end of 2002. However, as I always reflect, it is still well off its peak of just about 7,000 reached at the turn of the millennium.

Maybe it's just profit-taking, maybe it's just that the big mining and oil stocks that have pushed the FTSE up so much are coming off their peaks. Maybe it's also something to do with what may be happening in the real economy, both here and overseas. Now, if I understood how markets worked I wouldn't be slaving away at a keyboard like this.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I was reflecting how well shares were doing when there's so much gloomy news coming in off the street, especially the high street. Now, perhaps I ought to be wondering how long the market's mini-revival can last when there is so much gloom out there.

Both the natural world and human behaviour seem to be conspiring to make us all miserable. A few days ago, my distinguished colleague Hamish McRae was writing in these pages about the potential economic impact of bird flu.

Never normally alarmist and always balanced, Mr McRae commented: "The main concern seems to me not so much one of direct damage to world trade, unless a pandemic were to reach such proportions that it would become impossible to move anything but essential goods and people around the world. That seems unlikely. Rather it seems to me that a flu pandemic would hit a world economy already weakened by other forces and would therefore tip it into some sort of global recession."

Now that is frightening; almost as awful a prospect as catching the dreaded lurgy itself.

The thing that might weaken this country's economy is the combination of: unsustainable rises in public spending; tax hikes; higher interest rates on the back of high oil, metal and other commodity prices; an overblown property market; debt overhangs; and a continued sclerosis in the eurozone, paralysed in turn by the economic/political problems of Germany.

In the face of all that, perhaps the miracle is that the stock market is as high as it stands, and that it hasn't collapsed before now.

So what should investors do? Keep buying, is the answer. I have never managed to get these things right, and timing movements in the wider market is just as hazardous as trying to do so with individual stocks.

Taking a real long view, the ancient arguments in favour of long-term investment in equities, regular rather than lump savings, and pound cost averaging will sustain. The world has recovered from previous pandemics, in the late 1960s and in 1918, and it will get through bird flu too.

Short term, I suppose one answer is to get into pharmaceutical companies. I'd already been buying into GlaxoSmithKline long before bird flu became a serious worry, and it should now be able to sell more of its Relenza product.

I've also added some shares in Roche, even though it has already risen strongly on the back of its Tamiflu vaccine and anti-cancer treatments.

With an ageing population in the Western world and newly affluent China and India ready at last to take advantage of the benefits of Western medicine, the prospects for the health of the world and investors' returns should be good - just so long as governments leave those all-important patents alone.

Remove that patent protection (without compensation) and you remove the incentive to invest and you lose these wonder drugs. Will politicians heed that wisdom? I wonder.


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