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Investment View: The new bricks and mortar

Last week saw the FTSE 100 index move into ground not seen for four years.

The 250 index has been hitting new highs since the beginning of the year and it has been encouraging to see Britain’s leading companies make up ground. Share prices have been buoyed by mining, oil and energy stocks although the continuing high level of activity in mergers and acquisitions is playing its part. However, commodities do seem to be the name of the game at present.

Gold was nudging $500 an ounce last week. It has been significantly higher than that in the past but this is still a significant recovery at a time when there appears little in the way of geopolitical concerns to drive investors into this safe haven. The news that it has been demand from central banks and the jewellery trade that is driving the price seems surprising. Commodities appear to be the “in” investment at present, with talk of a cyclical uptrend that may have years left to run.

According to a report in last week’s Financial Times, private investors are eager to leap on the commodity bandwagon. Perhaps this should not come as too much of a surprise, given that national resource funds have been leading the performance tables of late. Wily investors should be cautious when the world and his wife get the buying bug. The technology boom was not that long ago, after all.

Even so, it was rather strange that investment in natural resources was barely touched on during the investment question time session I chaired for the Personal Finance Society’s conference in Birmingham last week. This was the inaugural get-together of this organisation and included the cream of investment-oriented IFAs. The questions directed to my panel – and to the more broadly-based panel the previous day shared by the BBC’s Paul Lewis – were of a high quality.

Despite attendance being affected by competing conferences and the need to shake off the lingering effects of the previous night’s gala dinner, there were no longeurs in our session. Questions covered a variety of topics. Some were of a technical nature – such as the use of derivatives in corporate bond funds under Ucits 3 – but there was one element of the session that pleased me immensely. Not one person asked about investing in property.

Perhaps commodities are the new bricks and mortar. Tilney’s Paul Wharton made mention of the fact that raw material prices had been in a lengthy bear market and only recently started to break out on the upside. He subscribed to the view that this could be the start of a new bull market that may have several decades to run. The industrialisation of countries as big as China, India, Brazil and Russia seems likely to ensure that demand will be sustained for many years to come.

Accessing commodities directly has always appeared risky. Today, structured products allow portfolio planners to be more innovative in the way they introduce this element into clients’ financial make-up. There have always been funds available but these will invest in the shares that benefit from the upsurge in raw material prices. While it is true to say higher prices spark share price rises, there will be other influences that mean careful selection of underlying companies remains important.

I much enjoyed the conference. There were many sessions I would have liked to attend but could not. The debate on commission versus fees would have been particularly interesting, given the audience. But it did provide an opportunity to see Steve Bee in action for the first time. No one could accuse him of talking down to his audience. I am sure I did not hear him mention property once.

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