It's never easy to answer the question that Fortune poses in its annual Investor's Guide: Where should you put your money now? The response, of course, depends on your individual situation -- your finances, your goals, your tolerance for risk, your time horizon, and your staying power. All of which only you can know.
This year it's far more difficult than usual for anyone to answer this question, because the financial world is even more unstable than it was in 2008-09, when U.S. markets were in free fall and fear ran rampant. Back then, only the U.S. seemed scarily messed up. Now not only is the U.S. still messed up, but substantial countries in the eurozone are mega-messed up. Japan has serious long-term problems, even worse than ours. And China -- well, who knows what really goes on there, or how reliable its statistics and company financial reports are?
Despite good days here and there, things in the U.S. aren't all that wonderful. At a time when things are so uncertain here, the standard advice is to seek safety, and to protect yourself against inflation and the almost certain future decline of the dollar. One traditional "safe" investment is bonds, especially Treasury bonds. Another haven is foreign stocks or foreign-company mutual funds, and -- for the more venturesome and sophisticated -- foreign currencies. Then there are commodities and "hard assets" such as gold, silver, copper, oil, and diamonds that will presumably hold their value if the dollar's decline continues and inflation rises.
None of those options -- bonds, foreign stocks and currencies, and commodities -- feel even remotely safe these days. But don't despair. I do have one strategy that you may find useful and that I've adopted myself. We'll get to it in a bit.
For an example of how wild and crazy the investment world has become, take a look at the U.S. stock market (assuming that you have a stomach strong enough to withstand the lurching). For the four trading days of Thanksgiving week, a normally sleepy holiday period rarely associated with turkey markets, the S&P 500 fell almost 5%. The following week it rose 7.4%. Whipsaw City.
One day the news out of Europe is dire -- the euro is doomed, as are many European banks, with toxic fallout certain to hit the U.S. economy like a radioactive financial cloud. Markets swoon. Panic reigns. The next day there's a supposed fix. Markets soar. Tomorrow or next week, who knows?
The U.S. economy, especially the job market, is also almost impossible to predict. Big American companies -- make that big companies based in the U.S., because "American" implies that the companies feel some loyalty to this country -- are collectively showing record profits and record levels of cash, but aren't doing much hiring here. Thanks, guys.