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Seeing the Forest for the Trees


PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Baillie Gifford is an independent investment management firm based in Edinburgh, Scotland.  At the end of 2010, it managed more than $113 billion in bond and stock portfolios.

Among those portfolios are kept Monks and SAINTS. Monks is a large generalist trust that invests internationally. SAINTS is a diversified trust that invests in a broad range of assets in the United Kingdom and abroad.

But it seems relatively safe to say that the Edinburgh-based manager's head of legal, one Angus Macdonald, is neither a Monk nor a SAINT.

Rather, this attendee of the 2011 Investment Company Institute Mutual Funds and Investment Management Conference likes to mix it up, internationally, climbing mountains and encountering obstacles that would make most cringe. Near La Paz, one time, he and his buddies had to bust through a roadblock to get where they were going, at significant personal risk. But, more notably, he and a group of comrades climbing through Nepal once found themselves paying a toll to AK47-wielding communist marauders, in order to get through. Macdonald paid. And got his picture taken with one of the assault riflemen, for a keepsake.

He said this was to be expected. That, if you plan out your trip through that area and through the pass that they planned to take, the appearance of the marauders could be expected. And that the fee they would take, you could budget for, pretty much.

Which is kind of how you should be managing investments, now and always. Know where you are headed. Know that there will be potholes in the road that need to be expected, planned for and paid for. And move on. Neil Hennessy of Hennessy Funds, for instance, thinks one of those times and places to invest is Japan, now when prices are down. Because Japan always comes back.

"Japan has experienced many earthquakes, and in fact when it comes to coping with the aftermath of earthquakes, their systems, infrastructure and architecture are second to none,'' he has told his investors. "Japanese companies should continue to thrive and help to lead Japan out of this devastating event."

Indeed, the path to good results generally means looking for assets to invest in, which no one else sees. As the Financial Times recently reported, one private investor in the United Kingdom (named Angus Macdonald) puts his retirement money into ... forests.

Why? If you die and don't need the cash, you can turn them over to heirs, wtihout paying a cent of tax. The trees qualify for capital gains rollovers and any income you get is free of income tax.

And prices of trees almost always go up. Only in 2001 did they fall, by 5 percent. It's an asset class that has risen steadily in price for 200 years.

Who knows? One way or another, the energy crisis might lead back to a look at wood chips as a biomass fuel. And there are other ways not imagined yet that wood will get used, for sure.

It's not cheap. If you want to put a forest in your portfolio, you may need around $800,000 to make the investment strategy work.

But that, of course, didn't stop Macdonald, who, the Times reported, has his pension money happily tucked away in trees all over Scotland.