International Survey: It still pays to think global

Despite recent market reversals, shrewd investors will maintain an international flavour to their portfolios
Unitholders with investments in a number of unit trusts with large holdings in Malaysia, including Fidelity ASEAN, HSBC Singapore & Malaysia and Tiger Index funds, have been shocked by the temporary suspension of dealing. This has left them unable to buy and, more importantly, sell their units. The funds together with Autif, the trade association, and Imro, the investment watchdog, are trying to find a way that dealings in the funds can re-start.

The problem has been caused by the imposition of currency and capital controls in that country which has left fund managers with holdings in Malaysia unable to repatriate any of their money back to the UK before September next year at the earliest.

This and the state of world stock markets over the last couple of months has brought home the reason why investment funds carry a health warning that prices can go down as well as up. From the July peaks in most of the developed world's markets in Europe and America, share prices have tumbled by around 20 per cent.

The turbulence that began in global markets started in the Far East in the summer last year. Having calmed down, the decline in the Asian tigers turned into a contagion this spring. It then spread to other emerging markets, including those in Latin America and Europe, especially Russia, and stopped the raging bull market in the US and Europe in its tracks.

And it is not over yet. Events in Japan, where the government has still to pull its economy into shape, has increased volatility. Nervousness among investors has been further heightened by fears of a devaluation by the Chinese authorities of its currency, the yuan, the possibility that an international trade war may break out and that some countries may impose currency and stock market controls, and that the Group of Seven, the world's leading industrial nations, may not get its act together in time to stop a possible recession developing into a global economic depression.

In the light of this, should we still consider investing internationally? The answer to that is, yes. Despite all the fears and the recent market falls, the reasons for investing in an international portfolio remain as convincing as ever.

While putting money into UK companies is normally the first equity investment for most savers, after this, they are usually advised to go international. This is because economies around the world are normally at different stages of the economic cycle.

This means that prospects can be better elsewhere. Despite the recent falls, mainland European markets that are busy getting ready for the introduction of the euro currency in 1999, have been among the best performers on the international scene this year and most are still showing worthwhile gains since January.

But investing overseas can be a costly and time consuming exercise. Some markets are difficult to invest in. It is expensive to buy foreign shares and there is the added problem of taking currency risks. Even more important, it can be very difficult to get up to date information on foreign companies.

Luckily, there are plenty of unit and investment trusts that specialise in international investments. They offer ready made portfolios that can be bought into quite cheaply. These funds take all the hassle out of global investing.

One of the best means of investing internationally is by regular saving. By putting in a set amount each month, you will iron out the peaks and troughs seen in markets. It means that when prices fall, you will buy more units or investment trust shares for your money. All the main fund management groups now offer special regular saving plans, some starting from as low as pounds 25 a month.

But whether you are considering a lump sum or regular savings, you should take a five or ten-year view. Then you can ignore temporary setbacks, such as we are seeing at the moment. Past investment history shows us that over such a period, equity investment usually outstrips any other form of savings.

Going international can suit the cautious investors. By spreading your money in different economies, you will benefit from the fact that while some may be in decline, others will be on the way up.

"Be very selective and check that the funds that you are interested in are investing in the key developed markets. Be very wary of any that have holdings in the emerging markets," advises Graham Bates, a Leeds-based IFA.

This is backed up by Roddy Kohn, of Kohn Cougar, who says: "Do not be afraid of international investment. Most of the damage in the markets has already been done.

"However, do look at the underlying portfolios. Good managers will have invested in the larger international blue chips, such as Coca Cola, Shell and Glaxo. These will stand the test of time."

General international unit trusts on offer from all the major groups are the least risky. Most have anything up to half their investments in the US, with the rest spread around the world.

International investment trusts could suit those prepared to take a higher risk. Their share prices have fallen faster than their net asset values over the past couple of months, which means that they can be bought on large discounts. Because of this, it is currently possible to buy pounds 1 worth of assets for around 82p. Over the long term, general international trusts such as Alliance, Foreign & Colonial and Witan have produced very good returns for their shareholders. But do be cautious as prices and discounts may have further to fall. Most of the leading investment trusts, like unit trusts, have regular savings plans, starting from as little as pounds 25 a month.

Risks are much higher with sector, country or region specific funds. Some emerging market funds, for example, have lost over 50 per cent or more of their value over the past two years. So while in the long term these could show sizeable gains, in present market conditions they are really only for the hardened gamblers.