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If you don’t buy shares when they’re cheap, when do you buy them?

There’s blood on the High Street. Maplin, New Look, Toys ‘R’ Us, MultiYork – these and other well-known names are closing stores or going out of business completely.

What’s to blame? Lost relevance, in some cases. But in many cases, squeezed consumer budgets are the cause. Prices have been rising faster than incomes.

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Meanwhile, irrespective of your politics, it’s difficult to describe the government’s fractious approach to Brexit as confidence-inspiring.

Huge sectors of the economy look set to see today’s frictionless trade replaced by tariffs, loss of access, logjams at ports, and higher costs.

And speaking of tariffs, of course, we now have an American president declaring that trade wars are “good” and “easy to win”. So now might not be the ideal time to knock on Washington’s door, seeking a post-Brexit trade deal. Just a thought, Dr Fox.

UK shares go on sale

It’s no surprise, of course, to see all this uncertainty and gloom reflected in the stock market. Relative to the rest of the world, UK assets are unloved, even after adjusting for structural differences, such as America’s higher proportion of technology stocks, for instance.

Moreover, certain sectors within the overall stock market are beset by even more negativity. Utilities, as I remarked a few weeks ago, seem badly affected by fears of price caps and nationalisation. Commercial property, as I’ve also pointed out, is affected by sentiment towards Brexit, and general High Street gloom.

Neil Woodford, no less, is warning that the correction in the market that we’ve seen since January “may be only the beginning”.

Pushing the ‘buy’ button

What to do? Well, I’ve been buying, switching out of a FTSE All-Share index tracker, and into some of the bargains that are on offer.

Commercial property giant Hammerson, tobacco firm Imperial Brands, warehouse specialist Tritax Big Box, Lloyds Banking Group… plus a series of top-ups across the board.

And I still have a lot of cash left uninvested.

That’s partly because I’m still weighing up what to buy, and partly because there’s also an element of keeping my powder dry, to use if markets fall significantly further.

Cheap shares, high yields

For investors, these are certainly unusual times. There’s nothing like the economic gloom of 2008 and 2009, and certainly no recession.

Certain sectors are having a torrid time, to be sure, but others are bumping along quite happily, despite the stock market’s concerns.

And while a FTSE standing at about 7,150 doesn’t sound particularly cheap, especially to investors who remember how recently it stood at under 6,000, the fact remains that relative to other markets, Britain’s stock market has fallen out of favour.

Domestically focused stocks are priced at especially attractive levels, just as they were immediately after the referendum. Consequently, in the case of stocks favoured by income investors, there are some tasty prospective yields out there.

Aviva on 5.9%? SSE on 7.8%? Phoenix Group on 6.3%? None of these strike me as inherently higher-risk shares – yet they are priced as though they were.

Break away from the herd

As investors, we sometimes have to make contrarian calls. Otherwise, we may as well go with the herd, buy into an index tracker, and let the value of our investments follow market sentiment.

And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with index trackers. The trick is to spot those opportunities where solid, decent businesses can be found priced at levels that are significantly divergent from the broader market.

Or, where solid, decent businesses can be found priced at levels that are significantly divergent from their international peers.

Look around, and it’s difficult to argue that now isn’t one of those times. And if you don’t buy shares when they’re cheap, when do you buy them?

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Malcolm owns shares in Hammerson, Imperial Brands, Tritax Big Box, Lloyds Banking Group, Aviva, and SSE. The Motley Fool has recommended shares in Lloyds Banking Group and Imperial Brands.

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