Personal Finance: Perhaps this is the time to start casting our eyes east where, evidence suggests, the corner has been turned

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The Independent Online
WE HAVE been treated to a plethora of economic statistics this week. As expected, inflation was subdued, while the jobless queue continued to shrink, even though there are those who believed we were approaching that time when unemployment was more likely to rise. Instead there appears to be plenty of jobs around.

A bit like America really. There it is rumoured that some stores pay signing on fees to new employees, so desperate are they to find people to man counters. And hotels need to pay $13 to launder a shirt. All this in a country where more and more shopping is migrating to the Internet, except you can't wash shirts on the world-wide web.

Back in the UK it is not just in the jobless figures that we are emulating our transatlantic cousins.

Inflation was pretty well zero last month in the US. We were not quite as successful here in terms of keeping the cost of living down, but there is little sign of any real upward pressure on prices. A strong pound helps, of course, but in the end it seems to be the power of the consumer that is holding down the price of goods. And this despite a feeling of wealth that seems so far to extend only to shares and houses.

What should investors be reading into these figures? Encouragement for a start. Low inflation helps underpin the demanding ratings presently enjoyed by shares. Sustained growth without inflation should also give some comfort on short term interest rates, although just as the Federal Reserve Bank chose to ignore earlier statistics suggesting over-heating in the economy, so they are unlikely to take much notice of these inflation figures if they really have set their heart on a quarter point rise at the end of the month.

That is what the market is expecting. We have been promised fiscal tightening, so I imagine that is what we will get.

But increasingly the talk is of some sort of correction in the US which will undoubtedly influence other markets. Influence is a euphemism if ever I heard one. We all know what happens when the US sneezes.

Except that some degree of decoupling appears to be taking place at present. Perhaps this is the time to start casting our eyes East, where already anecdotal evidence suggests that the corner has been well and truly turned.

Take the trading statement from GUS released earlier this week. Profits were down, although admittedly this had been well signalled in advance. Burberry, their tailoring subsidiary, had done particularly badly because of a downturn in the Far East. It seems they all like Burberry coats out there.

But the last few weeks had been altogether more buoyant. Could it be that those wily orientals felt confident enough to splash out on new outerwear? I know it is early days, but it does look to me as if we should start to view this area favourably as the long term growth prospect it used to be.

I know that some Eastern indices are starting to retrace an upward path, but it is still patchy in investment terms, while companies with oriental interests remain overlooked by the stock market. This is a natural reaction.

Overweighting the Pacific Basin became less of a policy and more of a habit in the Square Mile, the corollary being that America was dismissed as being over valued and vulnerable to yet another crash. We are still waiting. One or two investment managers have lost their jobs through perpetuating this approach, even when realisation dawned that the real investing power lay in middle America.

Now, of course, the professional money manager is unwilling to do anything other than give a modest tweak to the Pacific region.

In theory it should not take too much global cash to push it North again. In practice there are plenty of people who look at what the region is worth in global terms (less than 4 per cent of an international portfolio) and reckon that they have quite enough there already.

And if they miss out, what does the out-performance on a minuscule portion of your assets count for anyway?

For UK based managers the effect is even less significant. In the APCIMS Private Investor Growth Index not much more than 1 per cent would be committed to this region on a neutral weighted basis. Hardly worth the effort.

But if you do believe the time has come to start backing the region again, Fidelity South East Asia Fund run by K C Lee, looks as good an option as any.

Say the manager's name quickly and you could almost believe you are backing an American engine driver opening up the Wild West last century. Just my sort of fund.

Brian Tora is Chairman of the Greig Middleton Investment Strategy Committee