Alan Steel: As scarce as taxis at closing time: advice that's a cut above

The UK investment industry spends a fortune on information and expert commentary in the search for good and bad investments - everything from interest rates and money supply figures to economic indicators, price earnings ratios and plenty of other gobbledygook.

When I was starting off in this industry 40 years ago I was given a piece of advice by a wise old man who said: if you're looking for tips on what not to invest in, it's simpler just to listen to barbers and taxi drivers.

That's sound advice, I've since learned. About 30 years ago I was at a tax conference in London where the keynote speaker tipped bank managers as great indicators of tax and investment advice.

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He suggested listening to their views and recommendations - and then doing the exact opposite, because he'd found them to be perfect contrarian indicators.

And now we can add fashion designers to our wee list of signals. Last month I grabbed a quick holiday on the magical island of Ibiza - don't listen to those who tell you it's only about lager louts and raves - and read an interview with fashion designer Jeff Banks about building wealth.

When asked if he invested in pensions or property he plumped for the latter, apparently unaware of the recent dismal returns and the fact that thousands of people are locked into property investments they can't get out of at any price.

Then he was asked if he had any stock market investments, to which he replied that of course he hadn't because as everybody else knew, the stock market has gone nowhere for at least ten years.

What baloney! Tell that to investors in funds run by the likes of Invesco Perpetual's Neil Woodford, Graham French of M&G and a bunch of other excellent managers.

If you were to jump in a taxi and admit to being involved in any way in investment, or if you were to nip along to the local barbers for a quick back and sides, you will be told that Greece and Portugal are for the rubbish heap.

You'll also be advised the euro and the dollar are on shoogly pegs and that you would be better off sticking your money under the mattress.

But would we notice if Greece and Portugal actually disappeared completely? You've probably heard the "GDP" term that is bandied around by economic experts. It's nothing to do with doctors - it's a fancy term for income. And right now Greece's share of world income is probably about 0.5 per cent and Portugal's much less.

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If Greece vanished I suppose we'd miss their olives in our Martinis, but it's Portugal that bothers me, because I'd find it hard to replace my occasional glass of vintage Port.

Let's get real here. It's not the things that everybody knows that cause problems for investors.The danger only comes from what's not predicted.

I don't remember too many people being on my side when I accused Equitable Life of being crooked back in the mid-1990s. And where were they when I said that with-profits bonds couldn't possibly work?

And I don't remember anybody, me included, predicting the overnight collapse of Lehman Brothers, the calamity that triggered the horrendous 2008 financial crisis.

So bearing all that in mind, I'd say that the smart money right now is on Europe fixing itself and the markets, while the dollar will provide a pleasant surprise. But do be vigilant - because it's when these problems drift off the radar that they could become dangerous.

• Alan Steel is chairman of Alan Steel Asset Management in Linlithgow.