What's in your 'safe haven' suitcase?

Building an investment portfolio is a bit like packing a suitcase. Depending on your destination, you'll require different clothing in much the same way certain investing strategies may make sense at different stages in the economic cycle. But, there are also some core items you're probably always going to need.

When you put together your portfolio, it makes sense to have a selection of 'safe haven' investments as well as your more exciting assets. These are investments that will help you to avoid losing money throughout market ups and downs.

It's a common conundrum. When market are rising, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing your portfolio climb in value. In these periods, many of us start to think 'why am I holding onto these slower-performing investments?'. But to use another travel analogy, think of them as an insurance policy. When things go a bit pear-shaped, you're pretty pleased to have them.

The UK stock market this year has certainly shown how important this protection can be. Volatility in the first six months of 2016 has been higher than the preceding three years' average, owing largely to uncertainty in the lead up to the European Union referendum. Now that we've voted to leave, we can expect this to continue in the near term at least. The impact on investors' portfolios can be significant.

For example in mid-February, as we awaited David Cameron to fix a date for the vote, UK equities took a beating. An investor that started the year with £10,000 in a market tracker could have been down to around £8,870 at the FTSE All Share's lowest 2016 point (yes, it was lower in February than it was the day after the result was announced).

True, as long as that investor didn't sell their shares their portfolio would have recovered somewhat since, but it's never a nice feeling to watch your retirement savings plummet, even temporarily, and you'd be surprised at how many people still have a knee-jerk 'sell' reaction.

On top of Brexit, there are plenty of other events on the global agenda to keep investors' guessing. The next big one being the US election, whose outcome could equally affect stock markets around the world.

So inspired by my recent summer holiday reading, here are five investments to help you build a safer portfolio:

  1. Gold, the original safe haven asset, coveted by pirates and investment professionals alike. These days, it can be easier to invest in the shares of gold mining companies, rather than buying an actual bar of bullion. We like the BlackRock Gold and General  fund, which gives you exposure to gold miners from around the world and has done extremely well this year in line with the rising gold price.
  2. US treasury bonds are another of the world's most popular, low risk investments. At the moment, yields on 10-year treasuries are sitting around 1.46% (according to Bloomberg on 1 July). This is higher than most other major developed markets, including the UK, key European nations and Japan (a good thing if you're looking for income in this low interest rate world). US treasury bonds are issued in US dollars, meaning you get the added benefit of exposure to the US currency, which is, in itself, considered another safe haven asset.
  3. UK government bonds (gilts) also have a proven track record of providing protection in tough times. Throughout the 2008–2009 financial crisis, they were one of the only asset classes to remain in positive territory. We are in a slightly different environment today, however, with rates as low as they've ever been throughout the developed world. While I'd still absolutely say they are a safe haven asset, it's worth keeping in mind they may not be the best long-term investment, as you're not likely to make much in terms of returns given their current yields.
  4. Having a part of your portfolio in cash can also be a smart move, particularly in turbulent times. The thing is to avoid selling when your funds/assets are at their lowest point and therefore locking in losses. Taking some profits when your funds are doing well, on the other hand, and then keeping aside that cash allocation while you sit out volatility can be yet another way of protecting your overall portfolio.
  5. Finally, we have targeted absolute return funds. This category is diverse and each individual fund within quite different, meaning funds do need to be allocated on a case-by-case basis. Those whose mandate is to be market neutral generally aim to deliver positive returns in all market conditions by potentially investing in a range of different assets and/or using different 'strategies' such as shorting stocks. They are not funds that target 'growth' specifically, meaning they won't be the star performers in a rising market, but nor should they lead the losses when things go south. Funds that we like in this space include Premier Defensive Growth and Henderson UK Absolute Return.


  • Past performance is not a reliable guide to future returns. You may not get back the amount originally invested, and tax rules can change over time. Mr McDermott's views are his own and do not constitute financial advice.

Darius McDermott is managing director of FundCalibre


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Your Comments

I cannot agree that buying a gold fund can form part of a five point safer portfolio.This fund fell 47% in 2013 and 15% in 2015.Funds investing in gold miners are higher risk and subject to extreme volatility. It has risen 69% in the last year, yes, but it is definitely not for widows and orphans.
As a long term safer investor I think that the loss seen of 25% over the last 5 years speaks for itself.

Investors might also want to read my piece 'Should you invest in gold during stock market turmoil?' This explains why some independent financial advisers recommend that their clients avoid investing in gold altogether. 

Darius McDermott replies: "Everything you have said is corrrect, but I'm not suggesting anyone invests all their money in gold equities - just a part of their portfolio.

"In the current market, given sterling weakness and general uncertainty, I think the gap between the price of gold bullion and gold mining equities will continue to narrow and they could continue to do well in the short to medium term. They give an added element of diversification to a wider portfolio."