WASHINGTON You've got to put your money somewhere, right? Under the mattress doesn't really work as a retirement program. It's lumpy, vulnerable to theft and your kids might find it.
But stocks are scary, bond yields are horrible, gold is already stratospherically priced (and selling off as I write this) and real estate? Even President Obama has been predicting further declines in housing prices.
Cash? Pathetically low interest rates are the order of the day, and some banks are actually charging customers to hold their cash.
But there have to be some places that make sense, and some opportunities even in this risk-laden market.
Here are some spots that analysts have identified as promising and/or cautious. But start by defining your time horizon. Are you investing for 25 years or for tomorrow? Keep that in mind as you peruse this list.
Many analysts still have long-term faith in the performance of good companies. "We believe the stock market selling has gone a bit too far in light of where we believe we are with economic growth," said Brad Sorensen, director of market and sector analysis at Charles Schwab. That could lead to "a nice rebound that we believe will be led by business cyclical sectors," he said.
His firm likes industrial firms and tech companies now. Jason Ware, an analyst with Albion Financial Group, also is recommending tech companies -- particularly those that focus on cloud computing and digital data consumption. And he also thinks that agricultural equipment companies will sell to farmers working overtime to meet demand from China and other developing countries.
You can limit your risks in stocks by taking a defensive stance. Sam Stovall of Standard & Poor's is recommending utilities and consumer staples, because they have high dividend yields and somewhat static demand, regardless of what happens in the economy. And you can buy those shares gradually, on days when stocks are selling off. "Many high-flying, once supremely-rich stocks have now been put on sale by some 20 percent to 40 percent," says Ware.
Lending money to the U.S. Treasury when it's paying at interest rates near their all-time lows is purely a safety play, but there are others that can bring you a bit more cash.
It's not quite time yet to jump into high-yield bonds or emerging market bonds, says Kathy Jones, Schwab's fixed income strategist. But there are spots between the safety of Treasuries and the high-yield of so-called junk bonds where investors can squeeze out extra returns, she says. She's recommending investment grade corporate and muni-bonds, as well as non-dollar denominated sovereign debt of developed markets.
To reduce risk, Jones suggests investors build "barbells" by buying very short-term and long-term bonds, and staying away from the middle range of the market. Alternatively, bond buyers can build "ladders" in which they buy bonds all along a maturity spectrum, and then, as they become due, reinvest them long term. So, for example, after a "ladder" is fully built, an investor might own a portfolio full of 10-year bonds, with one-tenth of them maturing every year.
It's hard to find an analyst who will tell you to buy a house now, because most areas of the country still have weak home prices, backlogs of foreclosures and unsold homes in inventory. But, if you can afford the payments, have been on the lookout for a vacation or retirement home, and have the patience to wait for the right home at the right price, you might find this an opportune time to hunt.
More immediately, there are pockets of commercial real estate that are good bets right now, says Alexander Goldfarb, an analyst with Sandler O'Neill + Partners. He's recommending real estate investment trusts that build student housing (both private dorms and companies that are partnering with universities to build and manage on-campus housing), top-quality malls, and apartment buildings.
With the most popular gold exchange-traded fund, SPDR Gold Trust Shares, now holding more assets than any other ETF, it's hard to argue that gold is underbought. But there are other commodities that could help protect your portfolio. Ware likes "soft commodities" like corn and soybeans, that could be used to supply the increasing demand for food, and specifically protein, from China.
With short-term interest rates very near zero, there's no real reason to pile money into an uninsured money market mutual fund. Instead, put your safety cash in a bank-offered money market deposit account, insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. You'll still make only negligible amounts of interest, but your money will be safe for the bills you have to pay over the next few months and years. And you'll have some cash to spend when you're ready to commit to some new investments and you find prices that you like. They're out there -- or should be soon.
(The Personal Finance column appears weekly. Linda Stern can be reached at linda.stern(at)thomsonreuters.com)
(Editing by Gerald E. McCormick)