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Putin only partly to blame for the investment correction reality check

Falling markets create great excitement and last week I had more questions on this subject than ever before (possibly because everyone else is on holiday).

My view is that there are always underlying causes and immediate causes to any market "correction" (let's optimistically assume for now that it is a correction rather than an inflection point in the investment cycle). The immediate cause here may well be Russia and the threat of an escalation of geopolitical misery. You could argue that the European economy's partial dependence on Russia leaves it, and by implication the world, exposed to downside risks to short term economic growth.

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This explains why European markets have been so poor over the last two months. However, the underlying cause is that investors had become complacent, optimism was rife and valuations had become stretched after two years of extremely healthy gains.

This correction is a reality check to all of those who thought that investing had become easy. So, Mr Putin is partly to blame, but the real issues were that markets were extended and the next impetus for markets to make further ground was hard to spot.

The "Ukrainian crisis" has also prompted questions about how one protects portfolios against geopolitical shocks. This is a particularly pertinent question at this time, as the world has rarely (possibly never) in recent decades seemed a more dangerous place.

With the almost unchecked rise of ISIS in the Middle East, Israel's latest war with Gaza, the fighting over the Ukraine and with huge swathes of Central Africa falling under the influence of Islamist militant groups, there are a number of tinderboxes sparking at the same time. With tension in the Far East still fuelled by an aggressive territorial drive by China, the possibility of lasting conflicts remains elevated.

In truth, preparing a portfolio for geopolitical flashpoints is fraught with difficulty and our conviction is that ultimately asset valuation will ensure whether you make money or not. If, as has been the case in recent months, valuations have become stretched, then rising political temperatures will cause cooling sentiment in markets.

If valuations are cheap, such as they were at the start of the Iraq war of 2003, then markets can withstand the heat. Indeed, the start of the Iraq War marked the dawn of a new bull market in equities.

So to an attempt to answer the question, where are we now? With equities and credit having looked expensive we raised cash levels in portfolios aggressively in July.

Ultimately, in any correction, whether geopolitically-inspired or not, cash is king. However, with gold having performed very poorly in the last few years and looking technically poised for gains, we had been recommending that all our portfolios held a decent level in gold as an insurance policy.

As the Russian Roulette wheel has been spinning wildly in recent days gold has made ground. Furthermore, we have ensured that we have held "safe haven" assets such as US Treasuries (in part for the US dollar exposure) and government inflation-linked bonds as protection.

It is worth noting that we are seeing recent lows across "quality" government bond yields, with the UK and US yields gaining back all the losses they have made in the last year, as investors had priced in interest rate hikes. With government bond yields now so low and equities having corrected (in the case of Europe collapsed) the questions have now switched to when is the buying opportunity in equities.

We don't think it is now, although markets are due a technical bounce, but we stand poised to buy favoured assets when we think the time is appropriate. While the investment world watches Mr Putin we boringly focus on valuations.

Tom Becket is chief investment officer at Psigma Investment Management

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