Where to invest in 2017?

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What to buy in 2017? As investors digest the last of the leftover scraps of turkey and Christmas pudding, thoughts inevitably turn to the year ahead. And, as with most years, I’m already trying to map out some sort of an investing strategy for the next twelve months.
Why do I bother with such a game plan, rather than react opportunistically as events unfold? It’s very much a personal preference, to be sure, but I’ve found that with a plan in place, it’s often easier to make those investing calls when opportunity comes knocking on the door.
So let’s start with the bones of last year’s plan – the words that I wrote almost exactly a year ago.

How I fared in 2016

Oil and mining shares are starting to look over-sold,” I pointed out. “Ditto some of the engineering and support firms that service these sectors.”
Sure enough, over the next few weeks I bought into BHP Billiton at 596p, Royal Dutch Shell at 1295p, IMI at 773p, and Weir at 777p.
Current prices? At the time of writing, 1305p, 2282p, 1009p, and 1861p – an average gain of 88%.
I was reasonably lucky with markets, too.
More broadly, I’ll be keeping an eye open for weakness in America. Asia Pacific is looking interesting, and I’ll likely be topping up my Asian Pacific index trackers in the months ahead,” I wrote.
Opportunity didn’t present itself in America, but it did in Asia Pacific, where my Vanguard Asia Pacific tracker ETF is up 34%, versus the FTSE 100’s 17%.
Finally, I stuck my head over the parapet with respect to the Footsie itself.
I’m expecting it to go lower than last week’s 5,875,” I wrote, “but reckon it will be higher a year from now than it is today.”
Lucky, again: in mid-February, the FTSE 100 dipped to a tab above 5,500, before powering away. As I write these words, it’s above 7,000.

Expect the unexpected

Despite all this, the year ahead is much more likely to be dominated by things that weren’t even on my radar screen a year ago.
Brexit, for instance. A year ago, the date for the referendum hadn’t even been announced.
Donald Trump in the White House: a year ago, election statistician Nate Silver – whose performance during the 2008 and 2012 election brought widespread acclaim – didn’t think that Trump would win the Republican nomination, never mind the presidency.
Technology, for another. As highly respected fund manager Nick Train has pointed out, for the first time ever the world’s five largest companies are all technology plays – Apple, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. 1999, anyone?
And finally, a fairly worrying economic backdrop. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, 2017 will likely see a sharp squeeze on net disposable incomes: tighten your belts.

Through the murk

So what to make of all this? I have to concede that things are far less clear than they were a year ago. Nevertheless, some broad conclusions are possible.

First, major stock markets – on both sides of the Atlantic – are fairly fully valued. The FTSE 100, for instance, is on a P/E over 20, and a yield of under 3%. The picture is very similar with America’s S&P 500.
So the balance of probabilities suggests that major gains from here are fairly unlikely. But there’s still value to be had in Asian markets: both Hong Kong and Japan still look moderately attractive, and some individual European markets aren’t without appeal, either.
Second, while the FTSE 100 as a whole looks reasonably expensive, shares with a high level of exposure to the UK domestic economy are still suffering a degree of post-Brexit fallout, coupled to worries about softer economic growth going forward.
For investors, I think the challenge is that there are few broad themes to this: it’s not as simple as last year’s ‘commodities are over-sold’ message. But retail is one sector where I’d go shopping, looking for niche players with a distinctive offering. Engineering is another, where the weaker pound appears to be boosting exports. And utilities are another: water companies, for instance, currently offer attractive yields.
And thirdly, this is a year in which I suspect that quality will rule – especially if, as we saw with Brexit, circumstances lead to temporary mis-pricing. So look for big brands, and look for Warren Buffett-style moats, and preferably look for the two together. Companies such as Unilever and Diageo are rarely cheap, but continue to serve patient investors well.

In a nutshell

How to sum all this up? That’s easy.
In the absence of clarity about major investing themes, the next twelve months are likely to be about taking advantage of opportunities to pick up individual stocks at advantageous prices.
So pick well! Because for me, 2017 is going to be more difficult than 2016.

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Malcolm owns shares in BHP Billiton, Royal Dutch Shell, IMI, Weir, and Unilever. The Motley Fool owns shares in Apple, Alphabet and Unilever, and has recommended shares in Weir, IMI, Royal Dutch Shell and Diageo .