BLOG: Do investors need to panic about a Portuguese bank?

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Do investors need to be concerned about the activities of an obscure Portuguese bank? After all, most people probably didn’t know much about the Banco Espirito Santos until its problems rocked stock markets last week. It has proved a salutary reminder that there are still troubles that threaten the global economic recovery, but what does it mean for savers and investors?

First of all, it will probably mean that stock markets will be wobbly over the next few months. The recent period of eerie calm has been premised on the view that global economic recovery is assured and the troubles at Banco Espirito Santos suggest otherwise. Portugal has only been out of its ‘special measures’ programme for a couple of months and is unlikely to be in a position to deal with a major crisis.

Plenty of experts believe that a wider, more serious crisis is still possible: For example, the head of the Bank for International Settlements has warned that the global financial system is at risk of a second crisis, possibly worse than the first due to the higher levels of debt that have been accumulated since the last crisis.

The consequences of a second credit crunch should not be underestimated: In the last crisis, stock markets fell 30% from peak to trough with areas such as emerging markets and smaller companies falling considerably more. Bonds would be unlikely to offer the same safe haven as they did in the last crisis as interest rates are at rock bottom and unlikely to fall further. This is not great news for investors however it is spun.

However, there are a number of reasons to remain, if not cheerful, then at least relatively calm. If there is a crisis, or even the hint of a crisis, interest rates are less likely to rise: If the global economic recovery slows, policymakers are unlikely to risk raising rates and may even reinstate quantitative easing programmes. This is likely to support markets in the short-term.

Equally, every bull market needs a good dose of euphoria to hit its highs. The reassuring aspect of an otherwise tricky picture is that this euphoria is notably absent: Investors are still demonstrating reasonable scepticism about the recovery, which suggests that stock market valuations may not be as vulnerable as they were at the start of the last credit crisis simply – there is not as much optimism around.

These are difficult times, but difficult times can throw up opportunities for investors. Every sell-off allows investors to buy into markets at a lower level. In these markets, keeping an eagle eye out for bargains may reap long-term rewards.

Where might those bargains be found? Patrick Barton, manager of the WDB Oriel UK fund recommends looking out for UK companies with emerging market exposure, which have sold off over the past few months and where good value is appearing. Equally, smaller companies have also been knocked since the start of the year and any further set backs in markets could provide an opportunity to reinvest. Remember, no-one got rich by buying at the top of the market.

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