Want to make your head spin? Try this pop quiz:
Are we in for inflation or deflation? Is gold a must-own or just another commodity? Will the market go even lower than it did last fall? How many more banks will fail? Will China's economy go completely sour, and if so, what does that mean for the U.S.? Will President Obama's economic team be able to turn things around, and if so, when?
Quick, what are your answers? If you don't know, how can you hope to invest in this market?
Here's my answer: We don't need to know for sure. We can invest well anyway.
Nobody else knows, either
We all know -- or we should -- that it's important to have a plan when we invest, whether we're holding one stock for a year or two or putting together a complex retirement portfolio. We should know our intended outcome and know what we'll do if things go awry. But can we put together such a plan when the near-term future of the market and the economy is so uncertain?
Put that way, the need for a plan can be a recipe for paralysis. Consider: All of the above questions are being hotly debated by leading economists and veteran Wall Street analysts and managers right now. If the paid professionals can't come to consensus, what hope do we ordinary investors -- who have other things to do with our days -- have of making accurate predictions?
Fortunately for us, I don't think we need to.
Dhandho for your portfolio
Value investing guru Mohnish Pabrai uses the word "dhandho," which he translates as "endeavors that create wealth," to describe his approach to investing -- buying value stocks with a margin of safety. Like all value investors, he seeks upside potential with little downside risk. Or, as he puts it, "Heads I win, tails I don't lose much."
I think value investing is a good approach any time -- and it's one of the approaches I'm going to suggest you take right now -- but I also think that we can use the "dhandho" principle to fill out our portfolios beyond value stocks, by staying away from investments that require a particular economic storyline to unfold in a particular way.
Specifically, here's what I'm thinking:
- Buy safe dividends. No company's dividend is completely safe, of course, but some are safer than others during recessionary times. Keeping it basic is the way to go -- megautility Southern Company (NYSE: SO ) , big pharmaceutical Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY ) , and Kleenex maker Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB ) are all yielding more than 4% at current prices and are in relatively recession-resistant spaces. Don't be fooled by big yields in stock screens -- Yahoo! Finance tells me that Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC ) dividend yield is almost 18% at the moment, but even if the company hasn't already cut that dividend by the time this gets published, I think your chances of seeing that kind of yield going forward are about zero.
- Buy value. I made my argument for value stocks last week, and I won't rehash it here -- except to say that while there are a lot of stocks that are cheap for good reasons right now, there are also some great values out there. For starters, you could do worse than taking a look at KBR (NYSE: KBR ) and WABCO Holdings (NYSE: WBC ) , which are five-star picks in Motley Fool CAPS.
- Heed this TIP: Avoid most Treasuries. U.S. Treasury securities, considered by many to be the safest investment in the world, have been extremely popular in recent months -- so popular that yields have been bid down to nearly zero. That looks like a bubble to me, and the odds of it popping are high enough that dhandho suggests we look elsewhere. But rather than making a guess about future inflation or deflation, I'm going to apply dhandho and suggest TIPS -- Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities -- for those looking for a safe harbor. TIPS offer upside in the event of inflation with minimal downside if things go the other way, which fits perfectly with the rest of our approach. (While the principal value of TIPS is adjusted down when there's deflation, you won't get paid less than the bond's original principal value at maturity.)
A final golden thought
I know gold is very popular in certain quarters right now, but I suggest that you limit your exposure. Sure, there's the possibility that gold could double in value if the U.S. dollar falls to pieces, but that's exactly the kind of "if" that I think we should steer clear of right now. If you really want some gold in your portfolio, adding a position in a good bullion proxy like Central Fund of Canada (AMEX: CEF ) is the way to go, but I think there's less risk and equally good upside potential elsewhere.