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Our top tips for stock market success: John Phelps' portfolio

We are prepared for another bumpy ride as we launch our new portfolio for 2012 in an attempt to repeat past successes by beating the performance of the benchmark Financial Times Stock Exchange Index for the 11th successive year.

Shares were in remarkably buoyant form as we finalised our list on Wednesday morning in the wake of President Barack Obama's success in pulling the US back from the edge of the financial cliff.

Temporarily forgotten were other problems such as the continuing crisis in Euroland, dangers of an escalation of tensions in the Middle East and the risks of looming inflationary pressures as the Footsie pushed through the 6000 barrier.

But we recognise that every burst of euphoria can end in a hangover and have chosen six shares we believe should continue to flourish in a tougher economic climate.

As usual we will invest a notional £1000 in each of the shares and will monitor progress on a weekly basis until the portfolio is wound up at the end of 2016.

A key factor is our published stop/loss system where we sell any share which has fallen 10% from previous peaks and hold the proceeds as cash until we identify a more promising investment.

We are quite rigid in following the rule and it is likely that some of the present portfolio could be ejected before the end of the year, regardless of our own views on the individual company's prospects.

In common with other newspaper tipsters, we do not take into account the cost of buying and selling the shares and the prices quoted are midway between what those dealers quote for buying (higher) and selling (lower).

It is rare for us to agree wholeheartedly with City professionals but find it hard not to accept their overwhelming enthusiasm for Perth-based Stagecoach, where no fewer than 11 (out of 16) stockbrokers are advising clients to clamber aboard.

A major attraction is that the company's loss-making East Midlands rail franchise is set to receive £40 million taxpayer assistance in the coming months, while continuing strong revenue growth should help assure a good increase in earnings and dividends this year.

Additionally, Sir Brian Souter, the company's joint founder and major shareholder with his sister Ann Gloag, is set to take a back seat by stepping down as chief executive to become chairman in May, which is an indication of his confidence in the future.

IN contrast, Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Guinness drinks giant, Diageo, saw its shares suffer a year-end hangover as brokers scrambled to downgrade forecasts when the group lost its lucrative distribution deal for Cuervo tequila brands after breaking off takeover talks and investors also fretted about the progress of US fiscal cliff discussions.

The shares managed a rally on Wednesday after President Obama's agreement, which helps underpin the important US market but should have further to go after the interim figures in February which should show the potential of its markets in emerging economies after recent major deals in India and Turkey.

Housebuilder and construction group Galliford Try, part of the team which won the £600m infrastructure project for southwest Scotland, has demonstrated its abilities to cope with a tough market and is now building 20% more homes than back in 2008.

Followers say the group, led by industry veteran Greg Fitzgerald, should gain from Government initiatives to help first-time buyers and an easier planning regime, underpinning hopes of further progress this year after an 80% leap to profits of more than £63m in 2012.

Nervous investors can take comfort from a growing net cash balance.

Grainger, Scotland's largest private housing landlord, is another set to gain from Government schemes which include steps to make it more attractive for major institutions to invest in the rental market.

The company, which celebrated its centenary last year, also has a strong presence in the German market and has taken steps to reposition itself through an increased presence in more prosperous areas of London and southeast England.

The share price has been held back by relatively low dividends but that could change as directors plan a new policy if they can get debts below £1 billion later this year.

We have developed a reluctance to tip shares in smaller companies because of the lack of liquidity in the marketplace but are prepared to make an exception for Glasgow's Iomart.

We held the shares for a time last year but now accept we sold out too early – although at a profit – as the group reaps the benefits of its investment in areas such as cloud computing and web hosting.

Similarly, we believe satellite-based internet group Avanti Communications is now poised for take off as it makes use of a second launch to expand its services in Africa and the Middle East after developing a niche in supplying out-of-the-way areas in Scotland and Europe.

The shares have been notorious for violent price swings in the past but appear to have stabilised at around the 250p level after short-sellers moved to take profits and now look ripe for a sharp re-rating in anticipation of maiden profits to come in 2014.

HOW WE BEAT THE FTSE FOR AN ENTIRE DECADE

OUR share-tipping column celebrated a decade of success on Hogmanay with annual returns trouncing the performance of the benchmark Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Share Index for the 10th time in succession since we launched the service January 2003.

All four of our portfolios recorded double digit gains in 2012 and the total value of their notional investments jumped 21.9% from £32,174.03 at the start of the year to £39,230.32 by the time the stock exchange closed for business at Monday lunchtime.

That compares with a 5.8% rise in the FTSE over the same period, rising to about 10% if company dividends are included.

Each year we invest a notional £1000 in each of six shares to launch a new portfolio, then take an active role in trying to ensure maximum returns over a four-year period.

Our main tool is the stop/loss system where we sell any share which has fallen 10% from previous peaks and put the notional proceed aside for future investments or to provide a safety net against any stock-market slump.

It means we make a few glaring mistakes, – selling shares such as those in Scotland's Smart Metering, Iomart and Cupid last year ahead of big rises. But we also avoid losses by ditching others like FirstGroup and Aggreko ahead of major price reversals.

We are great believers in the advice given by legendary banker Nathan Rothschild when asked how he made his money: "I never buy at the bottom and always sell too soon," commented the financier who provided Wellington's army with the cash to fight Waterloo.

As a result we rarely hold any share for a full year and safety equipment supplier Halma was the sole survivor of the six shares chosen to start the 2012 portfolio. The others – Cairn Energy, Smart Metering, Iomart, Ashtead and Experian – were all sold at a profit and the money re-invested in new prospects.

The most successful newcomer was Aberdeen Asset Management, where we invested on July 8 and have been rewarded with a price rise of over 40%.

The performance of Halma and AAM played a key role in steering the portfolio to a 33.5% gain over the year, although we will not hesitate to ditch either if it drops to the stop/loss level.

The 2009 portfolio was our second best performer over the year, rising 22.8% after we ejected previous disappointing performers in favour of new selections in a spring-cleaning exercise.

Drinks giant Diageo was the only one to escape the clear-out and responded with a further 29% increase over the year, although the portfolio fell tantalisingly close to our 100% appreciation target.

We have higher hopes the 2009 selections will have done better by the time we wind up this portfolio at the end of the year as they have already notched up gains of more than 80%.

Unusually, Carr's Milling Industries has featured in this list for the full three years of its lifetime and is continuing to hit new peaks.

The 2011 portfolio came off the boil and was the only one of our four investment vehicles not to finish with a record valuation. But it still managed to beat the FTSE performance, with a further 19.7% appreciation, helped by a 23% rise in the price of Standard Life after it was added near the end of August.

Apart from SL, the portfolio is centred around shares in solid safety-first companies which should offer a degree of protection against global uncertainties but tend to miss out on much of the benefits when stock markets perform strongly.

Along with the 2010 list, the portfolio was also held back by its large cash holdings when the FTSE began its run of consecutive monthly increases at the start of May.

We will decide whether it is time to take a more adventurous stance over the coming weeks.

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