I've just been asked by a client whether he should switch from cash to equities. Here's my view, and it may explain why I haven't earned much from investments over the last few years:
It is not possible to predict the market with any accuracy, but I think I have done well in foretelling the current state of affairs as early as the late 1990s. The market has dropped to half its 1999 peak (again, as it did in 2003), but that is not to say we are now at the bottom. Some (and I am moderately persuaded to this view) think that there may be a "bear market rally" soon-ish - maybe a rise that recovers perhaps 50% of the losses so far - but it is perfectly possible that the underlying trend is still downwards, so there may then be a horrid lurch towards - what? Maybe, ultimately, 4,000 on the Dow and 2,000 on the FTSE.
We are in the middle of an exciting ride and I fear that entering the market at this stage may still be for the adventurous and nimble. Yes, had one invested in mid-2003 and got out, say, late 2007, it would have turned a nice profit; but much depends on the entry and exit points. So as ever, attitude to risk and corresponding watchfulness are key factors.
There is also the question of what asset class to choose. I think domestic and commercial property are still overvalued, relative to income; because of fears regarding other assets, and also because of central bank investment ("quantitative easing" etc) government bonds are very highly priced, which is why the yields are so low (and if interest rates rise, bond values could then drop sharply); equities are depressed, but as dividends decline in very testing economic conditions, they may ultimately be depressed still further. Commodities (e.g. gold, silver, oil) are the subject of some speculation, but owing to shortage of borrowed money to invest with, not quite so much institutional speculation as formerly; even so, gold (for instance) is a bit above its long-term inflation-adjusted average, as far as I can tell - though if inflation takes off, the price could indeed escalate.
And then there is the question of currencies. The pound has lost heavily against the dollar; but some say the dollar may catch us up again. The Euro may also not stay as strong as it is now - several countries within the Eurozone are suffering economic problems and are hampered by the common currency; I have even read speculation that the Euro system may fall apart within a decade, or some states may secede from it.
In short, I still urge caution, and if you do decide to get in, be prepared to move quickly if the market should turn. Meantime, there are relatively safe options such as National Savings Certificates, including the index-linked ones that will at least keep the value of your savings roughly in line with RPI...