By Susan Fenton
Stock investors reeling from last year's market mayhem may take some solace from practitioners of the ancient Chinese art of feng shui, who predict a calmer, if subdued, performance in the coming Chinese Year of the Ox.
"This year of the Ox is an 'earth' year, when people will take a breather and reflect on what they should do after a turbulent 2008," said Hong Kong feng shui master Raymond Lo.
Practitioners of feng shui maintain the universe is made up of five elements -- earth, water, fire, wood and metal -- that define the collective mood in our environment.
Earth is the calmest of the elements and this year is a "yin earth" year as well as an Ox year, symbolizing a more feminine energy, says Lo.
The Year of the Ox, which starts on January 26, will be the most peaceful year globally since 2000, he says, but stock investors don't need to rush into the market yet.
"2009 will be a 'pure earth' year, which means fire will be missing so there will not be a lot of drive to push up the stock market," said Lo. The economic climate will still be tough and though stock markets might rise in the first half of this year, gains could peter out in the second half, Lo said.
"The market should still be quite low in the second half and that would be a good time to get in ahead of a recovery in 2010 (the Year of the Tiger)," he said.
The global outlook will be helped by the fact that incoming U.S. President Barack Obama was born in a "yin earth" year, like President Abraham Lincoln. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou are also "yin earth" people.
"This is a new generation of leaders. They are more calm, humane and charismatic," Lo said.
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Charles Darwin, Tchaikovsky and Sigmund Freud, were all born in "yin earth" years which symbolize harmony and a move to a new order.
The last "yin earth" year of the Ox, in 1949, saw the birth of NATO and the People's Republic of China.
Vincent Koh of the Singapore Feng Shui Center agrees that financial markets will be subdued.
"Don't pick high-risk assets this year, be patient and don't expect high returns," Koh said.
The global economy could start to pick up in the second half of 2009, says Koh, who sees busy merger and acquisition activity, but adds that banks will continue to be reluctant to lend.
A report this month by Japanese research company Daiwa Institute, however, warned that Ox years are usually disastrous for stocks and Japan's Nikkei stock index has fallen by an average 11.4 percent in each of the past five Years of the Ox.
Feng shui masters have a mixed record when it comes to market predictions. Lo forecast a stock market correction a year ago but also advised investors to put their money into property.
Prof. Charlie Chao, a leading feng shui expert in the Philippines, was quoted in a CLSA research note a year ago as warning of a possible global economic crisis in 2008.
But he also forecast a better performance for the Philippine stock market. That didn't happen. Manila stocks slumped 48 percent last year, reversing a 21 percent gain in 2007.
Chinese emperors put great faith in advice from feng shui masters as do many business tycoons and politicians in Chinese societies today. Apartment blocks and office buildings as well as furniture are often positioned according to feng shui principles to generate "wealth."
Banking giant HSBC's Hong Kong headquarters was built in accordance with feng shui guidelines and Hong Kong Disneyland changed the angle of its main entrance after consulting a feng shui expert.
As fewer people buy property or start businesses during the economic downturn, Michael Teo, a feng shui master at I-Ching Fengshui in recession-hit Singapore, is seeing a drop in business.
However, sales of auspicious feng shui jade carvings, which cost $2,000-$3,000 and are believed to bring wealth, are being snapped up every day, he says.
Koh compares feng shui with a reliable weather forecast, saying it can help us anticipate changes in our environment.
"We cannot stop the rain, but knowing it is going to fall we can prevent ourselves from getting drenched," he says.
But getting wet may be a minor concern in the Year of the Ox. While financial markets should be calmer, Koh foresees the spread of disease and a spate of natural disasters, particularly in the northern hemisphere, with landslides, floods and earthquakes in store.
(Editing by Megan Goldin)