The biggest single question that every investor will have faced at one point is: where do I start?
It is commonly asked by recently arrived expatriates who want to put their spare income to work, but every UAE resident must address this if they are serious about saving for the future.
However, be careful who you ask. The UAE regulatory authorities are making commendable efforts to tighten up the financial advisory arena to ensure residents are protected from brokers peddling unsuitable products.
They will give you the wrong answer to your question and for the wrong reason. Too many residents have found themselves locked into expensive and restrictive offshore portfolio bonds or 25-year fixed-term contractual savings plans, which may generate large commissions for the adviser and plan provider, but precious little for you.
Many big global banks also offer high charging, low performing investment plans and platforms.
New members of SimplyFI.org, a non-profit community of UAE investment enthusiasts, often ask where they should start, and the consensus response is that low-cost offshore platforms are the best place.
These online brokers offer multi-currency trading accounts with exposure to a vast choice of investments, including thousands of stocks, mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs).
As you become more experienced, you can further diversify by trading currencies, commodities and more complex financial instruments such as derivatives if you are into those.
These online platforms waive most or all upfront commission and charge low annual fees so you get to keep most of your investment growth yourself.
Four platforms are particularly popular with UAE residents wanting offshore exposure: Interactive Brokers, Internaxx, Saxo Bank and Swissquote.
UAE-based AES International operates a similar model, giving you a choice of low-cost ETFs, with the option of fee-based advice if you prefer.
Steven Downey, chartered financial analyst candidate at Holborn Assets in Dubai, which offers specialist financial advice for those uncomfortable making their own wealth planning decisions, says one of the first things to look for is cost. "What are the transaction and trading costs? How much will you pay in ongoing account fees? What other charges are there? They may seem small but they can all add up over time, and eat away at your returns.”
Then, look at your fund options. “How big a choice do you get? Are you offered the full range of funds and instruments, or only a limited choice, on a limited range of exchanges?”
How comfortable do you feel with the site's interface? "Is it user-friendly for beginners, or complex and designed for professionals?”
These days it is worth checking whether there is a robust app for either iPhone or Android, Mr Downey adds.
Although an adviser himself, Mr Downey concedes that not everybody needs specialist help. “For the DIY investor who will educate themselves and has the discipline to not shoot themselves in the foot when the markets are volatile then online platforms can be a very good option. Simple, cheap, be diversified, hold on tight.”
Dave Sparvell, chief executive at Luxembourg-based Internaxx Bank, suggests looking for an online broker that offers clean funds without trailer fees, to keep the cost as low as possible.
Most funds have an ongoing management fee that includes a rebate paid by the fund's manager to the platform selling it. What you need to look for is the clean version. "This will hold the same assets and follow the same investment policy, but with a lower management fee," says Mr Sparvell. "That way you can maximise performance.”
For example, the popular Fidelity America Fund has an ongoing charge of 1.89 per cent a year but this falls to just 1.04 per cent in its clean version.
You then have to add on your platform's annual fee, for example, Internaxx charges just 0.40 per cent a year.
Mr Sparvell says be wary of global banks as many charge higher commissions and promote in-house investment funds and other products with higher fees. “At the opposite end you can also find online brokers offering deep discounts, but these are often those based in jurisdictions with lower guarantees and protections.”
Mr Sparvell advises looking for a platform based in a stable jurisdiction with strong investor protection and without taxation at source. “Jurisdictions with strong economies and solid consumer protection laws ensure peace of mind.”
Internaxx is based in Luxembourg and is covered by the Luxembourg Deposit Guarantee Fund (FGDL), which guarantees deposits up to €100,000 ($111,500).
Danish operation Saxo Bank also protects funds values up to €100,000, while UK-regulated Swissquote is covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, which offers £85,000 ($110,000) protection.
US operation Interactive Brokers comes under the Securities Investor Protection Corporation which covers up to $500,000.
Yaser Faiz Rawashdeh, assistant vice president, global sales trading at Saxo Bank, says online platforms empower ordinary people to become self-directed traders. "You can trade online with live price feeds, fast execution and increased transparency, which allows you to take control of your investments more simply than ever before.”
They have “democratised” trading as private investors now have the same tools and choice as large institutions and fund managers, for example, Saxo offers access to more than 35,000 financial instruments.
If that sounds a little daunting, many platforms give you low-cost automated "managed portfolios” giving you a balanced mix of funds to match your investment goals and appetite for risk, for example, Interactive Brokers Model Portfolios, Internaxx Smart Portfolios, SaxoDirect and Swissquote ePortfolios.
Mr Rawashdeh says: “Managed portfolios can be a wise choice for people without the time, knowledge or motivation to pick their own stocks, funds or other investments.”
The best platforms also offer a wealth of help and advice for more hands-on investors, including market analysis and information, training webinars and other educational materials.
Mr Rawashdeh says low costs are important but security matters too. "Look for a broker with a reputable international brand, that adheres to strict regulatory requirements in major jurisdictions.”
Also aim for round-the-clock customer service in your preferred language, ease of platform use and ability to combine managed and DIY investments in the same account, he says.
If you are ready to make your own decisions, Oliver Smith, portfolio manager at IG Index, which has offices in Dubai, says it may be simpler than you think. "You only need a handful of ETFs to start building your own investment portfolios, looking for those with the lowest charges.”
HSBC MSCI World (HMWO) gives you exposure to a global range of stocks a total expense ratio of just 0.15 per cent a year, while iShares £ Corporate Bond 0-5yrs can balance that by offering a spread of bonds with a current average yield of 2.1 per cent.
Mr Smith adds: “To get those regional tilts, Lyxor Core Euro STOXX 600 (MEUD) costs just 0.07 per cent, while the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets (VFEM) has a long record of being well managed.”
The best online portfolios put the world at your fingertips, but DIY investing isn't for everybody. Some still need advice, especially for issues such as wealth and tax planning; just make sure you take it from a reputable source.
Stuart Ritchie, director of wealth advice at AES International, says you need to ask yourself some serious questions first. “Have you ever experienced a real market decline? Or multiple years in a row when the stock market hasn't made gains?”
We are now at the tail end of a stock market bull run that has lasted more than a decade, when investing is relatively easy. “It can feel rather different when markets are falling because that’s when people panic and make rash decisions,” says Mr Ritchie.
Mr Downey says DIY investors need to be prepared to see market downturns and deal with market noise, not to mention their own emotions. “Many would be better off paying a fee for advice than taking the lower-cost DIY approach.”
At least now you have a choice.