MoneyTimes - November 30, 2011

Posted by Jill Kerby on November 30 2011 @ 01:21



By this day next week we’ll all know how much poorer we are, care of the €3.8 billion Budget 2012 cuts in public spending – services that will have to be paid for individually from now on – and the tax rises, many of which will disproportionately hit the spending power of those on low and fixed incomes.

The stealth taxes alone – VAT, excise, the carbon tax and even DIRT, it is estimated could cost the typical family as much as €600 next year, but the rumoured cuts in social welfare benefits, health and education (the three biggest spending departments) along with the introduction of the household charge of €100, could double that amount.

Finding another €1200 a year will be very difficult for any family that is already struggling with PRSI and USC tax increases from last year, plus an average 18.1% change in mortgage interest in the last 12 months; a 13.4% increase in energy products; the 8.4% increase in utilities and local charges, the c20% increase in health care costs and the 4.1% increase in a wide range of other services (according to the latest consumer price index figures from the CSO. Astonishingly, they say that overall inflation is only running at 2.8% this year.) 

The government insists that stealth taxes are less harmful to employment than direct income tax hikes. But few people in the retail industry, whose businesses will share the pain of the VAT hike as discretionary spending falls even further, believe this.  Austerity is the order of the day so long as the government accepts that the foreign bondholders and bankers are the only winners from the 2012 budget. 

Anyone with savings, a pension fund or any other kind of taxable or easily confiscated wealth should just remember that there are three more of these high austerity budgets to follow this one, though many doubt now whether the eurozone, or our membership of the euro will last that long.

Even if this country leaves the euro, serious cuts in state spending will be necessary: there is an €18 billion gap between what we spend and the amount of tax we raise. Taxing “the rich”, no matter how attractive this idea is to some, will not fill that gap, not even if there is outright confiscation of their income and assets.

Already the top 5% of earners pay over 40% of all income tax and with the exception of the small number of super rich (who mainly live overseas), high earners here who work in the professions or are represented in the civil service, including all those bust builders earning €200,000 a year on the NAMA payroll are disproportionately dependent on state employment contracts. All these bloated contracts are unlikely to survive if we leave the euro.

So how will you be cope with the new austerity?

Since you have no choice but to pay the taxman – especially for something like the household charge, higher VAT and carbon tax - you will either have to cut even further back on your spending or find new ways to earn more money. (Borrowing to pay for higher taxes and cost of living expenses is only realistic if you have a generous family member or friend willing to forego interest or repayments; otherwise it is the road to hell, even if you can find a bank or credit union to lend to you.)

First, anyone already struggling to meet the cost of mortgages or other debts should make an appointment to see a MABS councillor in your area and then contact your creditors to arrange more liberal repayment schedule to free up cashflow. This is money that can then be redirected to pay the higher taxes or service costs you cannot forsake (like health or education expenditure.)

Next, go through your family budget with another fine toothed financial comb. Eliminate all food waste – a huge expense for most of us.

Do a cost review of your other big ticket items – insurance, utilities, transport. Telecoms – mobile phones, TV and internet – now account for a large part of this expenditure and can be cut back. I believe health insurance is not a luxury as the health service downgrades.  Shop around for a cheaper plan before you consider cancelling altogether. A good broker should be able to help lower the cost of all your motor/home insurance.

Aside from slashing your costs, the only other realistic way to get through this Great Austerity will be to also earn more. An audit of all the skills, talents and abilities in the family should reveal all sorts of ways to make extra money, no matter how small the amount.

Older teenagers are more than able to earn their own and become contributors and not just net cash recipients of their parents. Ideal jobs for them are babysitting, cutting grass/garden clearing, snow shovelling, doing local deliveries, packing shelves at local shops, pet walking/washing/minding, busking and giving computer lessons. 

Any and all entrepreneurial tendencies – especially any natural ability to buy and sell - should be encouraged. 

I know one clever family whose three teenage girls age 14-19 now teach piano and swimming lessons (having achieved their own grade qualifications) to neighbourhood children for all their own spending money for the past two years.  This, their parents estimate, has saved them over €3000 a year in weekly allowances alone.

Just as well, since that’s now the taxman’s money. 

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MoneyTimes - November 23

Posted by Jill Kerby on November 23 2011 @ 01:20



“I just wish they’d make up their minds,” a friend said last week. “Either save the bleedin’ euro or let it fail.  Just get on with it.”


My friend is not alone in wanting some kind of closure to the great banking and sovereign debt crisis. I feel the same way.


But the decisive action that everyone wants from the politicians or central bankers still hasn’t happened as I write. I think this is because they know there is no easy solution or ‘happy’ ending.


Instead, the austerity programmes are being pursued as I write, with a debt write-off for Greece, but only if they agree to the austerity measures, which is still not certain.


The ECB continues to try and hold down the borrowing cost of Italy, Spain, Portugal and us by buying our bonds, but the do so reluctantly, insisting that the first two countries are just too big to bail out unless they do something they vow never to do – effectively print money from thin air.


Pressure is growing for the ECB to become the lender of last resort and to start printing euros, but the Germans, who really do call the shots in Europe now and at the ECB, are against this money printing because of their terrible experiences of hyperinflation and the rise of the Nazi’s in the 1920s and 30s. However, if they refuse to debase the euro in order to save the euro, others predict the entire European banking system could collapse under the weight of their toxic sovereign debt holdings.


It seems to me that the euro’s days are numbered whichever route is taken.


With our government committed to following the austerity route and accepting that we are now, effectively a vassal state of Germany (with a puppet government that does as it is told), your own options are getting fewer and fewer as plans are laid to tax, confiscate or inflate away your income and savings in order to repay all the loans and debt we owe to private bank bondholders and the ECB, IMF and EU.


I’ve written about this before but just in case the euro endgame is upon us (I have no crystal ball, but I’m guessing it is) you may want to consider the following again:


-      The inflation of the money supply by printing euro to buy and repay debt will eventually reduce the purchasing power of the euro in your pocket and bank account. Be prepared for the higher prices of goods and services if this happens.


-      Inflating the money supply (by printing it) will inflate away the repayment value of debt as well. This is good for people with huge mortgages so long as their interest rates are fixed and their wages keep up with price inflation.


-      If Greece does not stick to its crippling austerity plan, it will not remain in the eurozone.  If it leaves, this could have a negative impact on the interlinked banking system and there could be even larger ‘runs’ on the banks in Greece and other countries as worried depositors try to take out their money before it is caught in a bank failure, currency default/devaluation.  If that panic spreads, currency and other controls may have to be imposed to stop other European banks from failing.


-      If price inflation takes off due to the artificial inflating of the euro money supply, many commentators believe the price of precious metals will soar.


-      If Ireland goes off the euro, or the euro itself fails, there will have to be a new Irish currency, which most commentators accept will then be devalued in order to boost our ability to sell our goods abroad at a much more affordable price.  This default will hopefully include generous bankruptcy terms from our creditors with national, corporate and private debt forgiveness. 


-      A new Irish currency will have to be devalued against the euro and will buy that much less of euro (or other) denominated goods that are imported, especially oil, food, machinery, etc.


In order to protect your cash and euro-denominated wealth you need to determine for yourself whether it is still safe to leave your savings in euro, in Irish banks, in the Irish state and even in the eurozone. 


Corporations and wealthy individuals have already shifted much of  their vulnerable cash into “safer” paper and ink currencies; “safer’ bonds, especially inflation-linked ones; precious metals, strong stocks and shares (though so many advisors and commentators are deeply worried about market volatility) and other tangible commodities and resources.


Adding more debt to “save” countries already overwhelmed with it was madness. All that’s left are non-functioning zombies – countries (and banks) that no longer run their own affairs but suck the lifeblood out of its citizens in order to service these unpayable debts.


What the zombies really need is needed is a proper, sustainable programme of bankruptcy that includes some debt repayment and forgiveness and a road map that points them in the direction of sustainable spending, balanced budgets and surpluses so that their economies and people can grow and prosper.


This isn’t going to happen. Living within our means is not on the agenda in Frankfurt, Brussels or Washington. But time is running out, so if you haven’t already done so,


-      Do a personal/family budget and know exactly what are your assets and outgoings.  Hold a family conference and do the same for the wider family.

-      Work out how to live on even less than you do right now; the austerity budgets by the state are going to relentlessly reduce your spending power, so try to earn more and save more.

-      Protect any savings from the risk of default or devaluation of the eruo. Only deal with solvent financial institutions.

-      Consider shifting some of your paper money into ‘real’ money and safer, tangible assets. 

-      Only act once you fully understand all the costs and consequences. Seek the help & advice from a trusted, professional financial advisor if you are not absolutely sure how to proceed.


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Employer sick-pay plan will only spread the malaise

Posted by Jill Kerby on November 20 2011 @ 09:00

Employer sick-pay plan will only spread the malaise


I’ll bet the financial regulator, Matthew Elderfield is sorry now that he ever mentioned that the Irish banks needed to refrain from raising variable interest rates outside of ECB rate hike events.

He said this last summer, in reference to the impact that raising rates arbitrarily would have on the growing arrears problem, but the same principle applies – in reverse - now that the ECB rate has come down but hasn’t been passed on by all the lenders.  When most of the banks declined to drop the rates right away, all hell broke loose and Mr Elderfield came under pressure to force through the lower rates.

The state may own the likes of PTSB, EBS, Irish Nationwide, AIB and a large slice of Bank of Ireland, while providing deposit guarantees to Bank of Scotland/Halifax, KBC and NIB, but, so far, it doesn’t directly set the interest rates charged to borrowers and depositors.  Insisting that all banks pass on every ECB rate change to variable rate customers (as opposed to tracker ones who are contractually entitled to the new rate) also smacks of price fixing.

If it was the job of the Regulator to set the price of money in this state, then surely someone as conscientious as Mr Elderfield would feel obliged to do something about the mad anomaly that exists in our unprofitable, loss-making, zombie banks:  they way they pay excessively high deposits rates and excessively low interest rates, relative to the supply and demand of capital in this state.

There seems to be no shortage of household savings – over €90 billion - yet businesses and private borrowers cannot find a bank that will lend to them. Meanwhile, savers are enjoying extravagant interest while existing mortgage borrowers with some of the larger Irish owned banks like AIB, are paying as little as 3% for their variable rate mortgages.

One consequence of this madness is that just a few days after passing on the quarter percent rate cut, KBC announced it was lowering its loan to value requirement from 90% to 80% thus forcing up the amount of the required downpayment.


This bank clearly doesn’t want new business, at least not at the loss making interest rates they feel obliged to charge. Expect even more tightening up of lending terms from the others.


What a mess, and it isn’t going to get any better until interest rate manipulation ends and the real price of money can be determined, though neither depositors nor mortgage borrowers will probably be happy with the new, genuine rates.


Do you have an emergency savings fund or even permanent health insurance, also known as income protection cover?

Chances are you have answered “no”, to the second question, as would most of the working population.

According to a survey undertaken by Aviva Insurance a year ago, fewer than 10% of us have a proper income protection policy and only 15% of people with such cover will receive the benefit for more than six months. Even then, coverage usually only starts from week 13 or 26, depending on the cost of the policy.

Mostly, Irish workers rely on state sick pay benefits, especially for routine, short term illness, a payment that they are entitled to in exchange for their (and their employer’s) correct number of pay related social insurance premiums (PRSI).

Last week the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, proposed that employers pick up the first four weeks of a worker’s illness claim, rather than her department.  Passing on this cost to employers will provide €150 million of the €700 million savings she must cut out of her €21 billion budget this year.

But it also – again - reveals what a pyramid scheme the PRSI system is:  the promises that have been made to its contributors cannot be met anymore.  And if the Minister gets her way employers will be obliged to meet the first four weeks of a sick pay claim, at a weekly cost of up to €188 per week for those who earn over €300 a week.  Multiply that by even seven or eight employees and this small business owner, who has an immediate production loss, has to potentially find another €6,000 a year on top of the 10.75% of their company wages bill that is PRSI. 

If the state can no longer meet this less valuable benefit promise for short term sick leave, why are they forcing workers, especially younger ones, to keep paying into a system that is even less unlikely to meet the really significant promise of the state old age pension?  This is a nearly €12,000 per annum benefit - for life – that is already unaffordable by our bankrupt state.

You may want to take this as a warning of what’s to come and act prudently – if you can.

Start a contingency fund, if you don’t already have one, to try and cover at least some of the wages you may lose if your employer cannot, on top of existing PRSI payments and mandatory holiday pay, also pay you directly because you are out for four days with the flu or four weeks with pneumonia before the remaining state benefit kicks in for a maximum of two years.

And don’t kid yourself that all employers will find a way to pay.

They won’t.

Judging by last week’s reaction from small firms and their trade bodies, some will cut out other benefits, like pension contributions; others who can, will reluctantly reduce working hours or even let a worker go. I heard one say he’d shut down entirely if he was “forced to pay on the double”.

Not one said they’d be hiring anytime soon.

Rentals Joy


Residential property prices may still be declining sharply this year, but at least landlords are enjoying some stability. 

The last Daft.ie rental report for the third quarter of the year shows a tiny 0.1% rise in rents. The margin of error is too small to read anything into the figure, but a far more substantial sign is that the stock of properties to rent is down by 9.3% since last year.

The overhang of empty rental properties has to keep clearing that this rate if rents are ever to reward heavily indebted investors, but it seems this is happening, especially in some urban areas, especially in Cork where rents are up 6.25% year on year. 

Overall, the Daft figures are a modest improvement, but these days property owners will understandably celebrate good news, wherever it comes from.







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MoneyTimes - November 17, 2011

Posted by Jill Kerby on November 17 2011 @ 09:00



Brave investors are rare enough these days.  With markets swinging by 100-200 points in a day, volatility is too great for the ordinary person. 

 So difficult is for anyone to trust the wild price signals that it is no wonder that so many financial commentators and advisors are recommending that investors stay away from the markets (equities, commodities and property) until there is more clarity regarding interest rates, and especially the cost of government bail outs of indebted countries, let alone their banks.

Mostly, they recommend their clients hold a certain amount of cash (in safe banks) and other defensive options, ranging from precious metals, inflation-linked bonds and well-priced absolute return funds (which aim to make returns both in rising and falling markets).

Some advisors also still favour long term passive investment funds. Considerable past evidence (though this is no indicator of the future) show that even including market crashes, widely diversified, passively managed, low cost funds will outperform actively management funds or portfolios, but the emphasis is on the ‘long term’ and and a careful assessment of the person’s entire financial position.

Despite this appetite for security, for those with an appetite for both equity investing and an understanding of risk, there is a unique new UCIT fund from Bloxham stockbrokers and New Ireland called the Bloxham Defensive High Yield Bond.

It is unique, at least here in Ireland, because it incorporates investment return enhancing methods that most Irish direct share investors almost never use and that most people would be unfamiliar with: call and put options.

A standard definition of a call option is ‘an agreement that gives the investor the right - but not the obligation - to buy a stock, bond, commodity, or other asset at a specified price (the ‘strike’ price) within a specific time period. How you benefit is if the price of the asset has increased before you exercise your option to buy it at the lower price you agreed with the owner earlier. The put option is the opposite, and means that you have the option to sell the underlying stock at a predetermined strike price until a fixed expiry date.

In the case of this new Bloxham high yield fund, it uses both options to –ideally - produce superior returns not just by choosing a portfolio of what are sometimes described as global or world dominator shares, but world dominator shares that pay dividends, but more than that, dividends with a record themselves of growing year after year.

A good example of this is Tesco, one of about 40 high yielding global shares in this fund (that also includes Abbott Laboratories, Canon, Coke, Intel, McDonalds, IBM, Royal Dutch Shell, Johnson&Johnson, Nestle, PetroChina, Vodafone) that has steadily increased the size of its dividends every year since 2001 with an average yield of 4%. 

On top of the dividend part of this fund’s strategy, it then aims to reduce the market volatility (and these shares are not immune to price falls) by selling call options (at a very small cost) each quarter at strike levels about 5% higher than the share price. (Bloxham note that big global shares are usually more price steady and don’t tend to rise and fall as other equities.)

Bloxham use Vodafone to show how the call options work:  let us assume the Vodafone price is 160p and there is a three month call strike price of 170p, which is 5% above the actual price.  The price of the call to the buyer is 3p per share.  

If the call price remains at 160p the call will not be exercised by the buyer as it has not reached 170p. The fund earns 3p per share.

At a share price rise of 168p, the buyer still does not exercise the call (because it is still under 170p) but the fund earns the 3p per share and enjoys the 8p rise in the share price. 

However, if the price rises to say, 180p, the call will be exercised, the fund gets the share price rise to 170s plus the 3p per share fee, but no further upside. 

Meanwhile, the fund keeps earning the usual dividends. Only a sharp fall in the share prices would affect this fund, but because it has purchased three month ‘put’ options – insurance - at levels that are 5% below index market levels, Bloxham are able to reduce the downside risk of this fund as well.

By generating extra income with the calls, and reducing volatility with the puts, Bloxham are confident they can produce better than expected returns from the shares that they include in this fund (which may change depending on the dividend growth pattern.) Last month, says Bloxham, selling calls on 14 of the 40 shares in the fund produced extra revenue of €150,000 that was immediately reinvested to insure the fund against downside movements.

You need a minimum of €5,000 to invest in this fund and it can be purchased by regular savers.   If you think you have the risk profile to suit this fund, make sure you fully understand how it operates and if you need more information, speak to an independent authorised advisor. 

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MoneyTimes - November 10, 2011

Posted by Jill Kerby on November 10 2011 @ 01:13



Global stock markets have never been so volatile, with huge swings of 100 or 200 points on some days.

Currencies are daily falling and rising widely against each other as governments desperately try to shore up the cost of their own borrowing and the bond market, and many commentators worry that the US bond market in particular could blow up if interest rates are ever forced higher by reluctant lenders, who are not indifferent to the fact that rates are being endlessly manipulated by central banks.

 The ordinary person’s reaction to all this uncertainty – and the losses they’ve taken on stocks and shares in their pensions or other investment funds, not to mention on the value of their homes – has meant they have become even more risk averse. 

 Last week I outlined how the great debt crisis, and the inability of the politicians and central bankers to accurately identify its causes and to agree on solutions, means that cash and guaranteed deposit accounts have become the savings destination of choice.

 In the short term, while so much uncertainty remains, being in cash, say many advisors, is not the worst place for your money to be, though the risk of euro, dollar, pound currency devaluation and debasement means they are also recommending holdings a small portion of their wealth in precious metals and other assets that are considered more of a long term store of value than fiat money.

 Two new retail products have been launched to try and offset this risk – the Bank of Ireland Double Inflation Bond, and the Split Deposit Inflation Bond from Bloxham Stockbrokers.

The Bank of Ireland bond, designed by Eddie Hobbs, promises to return the minimum €10,000 at the end of the five years but also pay double whatever the eurozone inflation (not just Irish inflation) over the period. The inflation rate used will be the EU rate produced by Eurostat, which is currently 2.7% and not the Irish inflation rate over the period.

 If inflation continues at 2.7pc a year, the bond will get a return of 5.4pc a year over the five-year term. If it soars to 10%, they will get a 20% return. Even if it falls below 0%, you get all your money back. Returns are subject to DIRT.

 Split bond


The Bloxham bond is somewhat different, though it is also for five years and has a minimum €10,000 required; the deposit funds are also guaranteed by Bank of Ireland.

 The Bloxham bond is called a ‘split’ bond because the believe clients don’t necessarily want to tie up all their money for five years. It guarantees a 7% return on 25% of your money at the end of year one which is then repaid. The remaining 75% of your money is put in a five year inflation tracking bond that will pay a minimum return of 15% of the sum, or, if inflation is greater than that over the period, that inflation rate with no limit on the upside.

 If inflation is negative, zero or even 2% you are guaranteed to get a gross return of €1,150 from your €10,000 investment and if subject to DIRT at the current 27% rate, a net €1,050 (2.02%) plus your capital back. A 6% inflation rate means a net return of €2,367 over the five years or net 4.34%.  As with the Bank of Ireland bond, this product needs substantial inflation to produce a substantial return. (The closing date is November 23rd).

These are bonds designed for very cautious borrowers who are aware of the dangers of inflation but not willing to take a chance with a more conventional tracker in which a return is possible depending on how an index of stock and shares performs over the period. If inflation takes off, so could the returns from the stock markets.

 The downside for both of them is that you have no access to your money for five years and there is no guarantee that inflation will run higher than fixed term deposit guarantees that you may be happy to accept now from different deposit takers, including tax-free savings bonds and certificates from the post office.  

 For investors who are willing to take a more calculated risk with their money, Bloxham’s have also launched what they claim is a unique new investment fund – the Defensive High Yield Fund which involves global shares that this column has discussed before:  dividend paying ‘world dominators’.

This new fund of stocks – that offers no guarantees - includes household names like Tesco, McDonalds, Shell, Johnson & Johnson, IBM and Vodafone but comes with an interesting twist, the selling of call options in order to produce extra quarterly income within the fund.

Few ordinary investors have a clue how ‘put and call’ options work; it’s a technical concept that, if done properly, can significantly boost the income of the shareholder. Regularly promoted in financial newsletters that I subscribe to, few investors feel confident to take the plunge and use put and call options in their own portfolios, something the Bloxham designers also grasped when they decided to incorporate it into their management of this fund of between 40 and 45 global companies on their clients’ behalf.

Is it worth the risks involved – and their fees? I’ll explain just what’s involved and share some independent expert views on this interesting product in my next column.


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MoneyTimes - November 3, 2011

Posted by Jill Kerby on November 03 2011 @ 09:00



You’ve probably heard it many times:  there is no reward without risk.

Usually, what people mean by this, in the case of their personal finances,

is that they are not willing to countenance losing even a small amount of

their savings or capital, and so are unlikely to do anything with their

money other than deposit it in a bank, building society, post office, credit

union account or in prize bonds.


For some slightly more sophisticated people (and I used the term

‘sophisticated’ very loosely) they might consider, as risk free, a

government bond or the ubiquitous capital guaranteed ‘tracker bond’, so

popular with bank and life assurance companies over the past two decades.

(This, even though few tracker bonds offered any annual, locked in return,

as do government bonds.)


Of course, thousands of people also believed for many years that Irish bank

stocks were risk-free. And then there were the tens of thousands who

believed from the 1990s until 2008 that buying a home (or even a second home

or investment property) was somehow risk-free.


Perceptions of property and stock market risk have certainly changed, but it

is still difficult for many people to accept that what they believed is a

risk-free destination for their money, is anything but, and that the hidden

risks of a bank deposit can be just as dangerous as a badly chosen fund of

stocks and shares. 


Let’s take the risks associated with a deposit return first:  depending on

the rate of official inflation – and more importantly – unofficial or group

specific inflation (such as for pensioners),  leaving one’s savings in a

deposit account can have a devastating effect, especially for a taxpayer

living on a fixed income.


For example, if you put €100,000 in a fixed deposit account yielding a

generous 4% per annum, but have to pay 27% DIRT on that yield, you would be

left with less than 3% growth. If official inflation is running at 3% -  as

it currently is – this growth would be cancelled out.

The most vulnerable group to the real rate of inflation are pensioners

living on fixed incomes that have not been rising by even the official cost

of living increase over the past few years.


The pensioner, whose income is static or falling and has not benefitted from

the sharp fall in rent and mortgage interest (up to about a year ago) or in

the falling price for footwear, furniture or certain electronics, but has

instead taken the full brunt of high double-digit increases in the cost of

energy, electricity, transport, health care and even some food, is perhaps

losing spending power on their savings/income in the double digits per



Year after year, DIRT and inflationary losses like this will eat away at a

lump sum on deposit. Also the oppostite deflationary effect on their biggest

asset – the price of their home – means that that asset, if sold, will not

result in the capital they may need for long term care, for example.

Inflation and deflation are both at play here.


Unfortunately, deposits now carry other risks that not enough people take

into account – of bank failure, of currency devaluation and outright

currency failure and it isn’t just the already retired who need to

reconsider their risk/reward profile.


If you believe, as I do, that there is a risk of significant price inflation

in the future, as a result of the massive increase in the world’s money

supply by central banks – trillions have been added to try and prevent mass

bankruptcy of financial companies and now countries - then leaving all your

money in the so-called ‘guaranteed’ options like bank accounts, expensive

and opaque tracker bonds, and even in ordinary government bonds needs



Tracker bonds are nothing more than expensive, non-transparent bets by fund

managers on future movements on stock markets and the security of the banks

in which the bulk of your money rests.  Government bonds are only as safe as

the countries that issue them; the capital value of your money could be

inflated away by the time you are ready to redeem it if price inflation

becomes a reality. 


So is there any way to earn a return both of and on your capital that not

only matches a deposit rate, but also beats the current inflation rate, let

alone a potentially higher one?


Some investment advisors think so.


Next week, we look at inflation beating bonds and a unique investment based

on some of the ‘safest’ shares in the world.

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