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Investors hoping for festive gifts

History is on investors' side for the rest of the year.

Statistically, November and December have had the best average stock market gains. It may be cashflow is better at this time of year, or simply that investor psychology is in play.

Certainly, in a positive year, investors usually are more relaxed near the year-end. Already fears have eased on eurozone problems and some other big issues. Should investors be reassured by history, or be concerned by weaker company earnings? Certainly, company results for the last quarter have been disappointing, with current trading little improved. But over the past four years, any slowdown has been met by renewed economic stimulation.

Governments seem to have got the message that printing money and keeping interest rates close to zero is essential for growth. To date, there has been little sign of any inflationary penalty for this.

We can expect more of the same, and stock markets have reacted favourably so far to any new injection of money. The stimulation might be intended for the economy as a whole, but most seems to end up in blue-chip shares and prime property.

Investors remain risk averse, and want their money where it seems safe and liquid. QE and actions such as the US Operation Twist have been good for stock markets, even if the economic impact has waned.

And politicians are finally realising that banks matter for growth, too. Tempting as it is to pile on further regulation and recapitalisation, the options are limited. Banks have little ability to raise new equity, and their profitability is weak. Restoring balance sheets will involve further asset disposals.

However, pressure on banks to rebuild their balance sheets and shrink operations will simply hit lending and economic growth. This deleveraging threatens recovery.

For a warning on just how dangerous bank shrinkage can be, the UK needs look no further than France, Spain and Greece. Politicians seem powerless to change how the banks are behaving. Faced with tougher regulations, little is achieved by directing banks to lend. Banks fear they will need the capital, and so offset whatever new loans they make by recalling even more.

Governments know they need growth to get re-elected. As a result, we can expect politicians to look for ways to make life a little easier for banks.

The sector might not be as dangerous for investors as it seems from the headlines.

The regulatory fines and political rhetoric look bad, but the economy needs a healthy bank sector. Gradually, the larger banks are sorting their problems. And, Royal Bank of Scotland could be encouraged by the Government to sell its US division, Citizens Bank.

That would transform the RBS balance sheet. Similarly, Lloyds Banking Group could sell its interest in St James' Place and improve its capital ratio.

These steps would take both banks much nearer to paying out a healthy dividend.

With RBS shares still trading at little over half the price that the taxpayer paid, the Government has a big incentive to help the bank.

We can expect further quantitative easing, and the problems in Europe make it likely that the European Central Bank will soon join in, too. That gives stock markets a good chance of following their historic pattern, with progress into the year-end.

Colin McLean is managing director of SVM Asset Management in Edinburgh

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