A worker walks past discount signs on a sports retail store in central London. © REUTERS, Toby Melville

Value-minded investors like to hunt in the bargain bins of financial markets for unpopular investments offering potentially big rewards.

But these days, they are scratching their heads. Despite the tremors which have hit major stock markets in the past few weeks, most of them remain at or near historic highs. Meanwhile U.S. bonds, from Treasurys to corporate debt, also have risen this year, sending yields -- which move opposite from prices -- tumbling to unappealing levels.

No wonder Warren Buffett, a famous bargain hunter, just disclosed that he is hoarding a record cash pile of $56 billion.

"Most stocks around the world . . . strike us as fully priced," says Charles de Vaulx, chief investment officer at fund firm International Value Advisers in New York, which oversees $21 billion. It is hard to find bargain stocks in the U.S. or overseas, he says. His firm is holding an unusually high percentage of assets, about 45 percent, in cash or equivalents, such as very-short-term bonds.

And while some professionals still see a few pockets of value, you would have to go pretty far off the beaten path to find them.

Today, even a crisis doesn't mean a stock-market selloff. Ukraine? The country is in the grip of a civil war with Russian-backed separatists. But the MSCI index of Ukrainian stocks still is up about 25 percent in U.S.-dollar terms so far this year through Thursday.

Argentina? It just defaulted on its national debt for the second time in 13 years. But if you are looking for a fire sale on its bourse, think again. The MSCI Argentina index is up than 20 percent so far this year through Thursday and has nearly tripled in just under two years.

Stocks held by the Global X FTSE Argentina 20 (ARGT) exchange-traded fund trade at a distinctly panic-free average rating of 20 times forecast per-share earnings and 1.5 times per-share net asset values, comparatively high by historical standards.

To many, this sort of news brings a sense of cheer and complacency. But others note that the more you pay for an investment, the worse the deal. The best investments are made when everyone is fearful, not cheerful.

"There are no bargains in the absence of fear," warns Rob Arnott, chairman of Research Affiliates in Newport Beach, California, which advises on $169 billion in investment strategies.

For those running a passive investment portfolio, the absence of bargains will be irrelevant. They will hold just the same long-term balance of stocks and bonds as usual, ignoring the shifting winds of the markets.

There is a lot to be said for such an approach. But for those who play a more active role in managing their investments, and who look for value, the current outlook poses more of a challenge.

Josh Strauss, a partner at Pekin Singer Strauss Asset Management in Chicago, which oversees $1 billion, says value investors should look overseas, and especially at Russia, Japan and the U.K., where many stock prices remain inexpensive in relation to fundamentals. The Russian stock market trades at five times recent per-share earnings, compared with an average of nine times earnings over the past 10 years, according to FactSet.

Low-cost ETF options for those markets include Market Vectors Russia ETF (RSX), iShares MSCI Japan (EWJ) and iShares MSCI United Kingdom (EWU). The Market Vectors fund charges 0.63 percent in annual expenses, or $63 per $10,000 invested, while the other two funds charge 0.47 percent.

Arnott at Research Affiliates still sees opportunities in emerging-markets stocks and bonds, despite rallies in both asset classes this year.

Those looking to go further afield and take on more risk also have options. Joachim Klement at Swiss-based investment firm Wellershoff & Partners, which has $10 billion under management, believes there are still a handful of small stock markets around the world that remain cheap, including Austria, China, Peru, Colombia and Greece.

He believes they have a good chance of doubling your money after inflation over the next five years or so. Low-cost ETF options include iShares MSCI Austria Capped (EWO), iShares MSCI China (MCHI) and iShares MSCI All Peru Capped (EPU), and Global X MSCI Colombia (GXG) and Global X FTSE Greece 20 (GREK). The funds charge annual fees of 0.47 percent, 0.62 percent, 0.62 percent, 0.61 percent and 0.65 percent, respectively.

Peter Bennett, an investment manager at London-based Walker Crips, which has $4 billion in assets, recommends shares in silver-mining companies as a compelling contrarian investment. While the sector has bounced up about 20 percent since the start of the year, that is from a very low base. He likes the fundamentals of the industry and notes that silver stocks remain deeply out of fashion.

The MSCI ACWI Select Silver Miners Investable Market Index -- tracked, for example, by the iShares MSCI Global Silver Miners (SLVP) ETF -- is down by more than 50 percent from its early 2011 peak. The ETF charges annual fees of 0.39 percent.

These investments all involve substantial risks. The markets are often small, volatile, thinly traded and dominated by a few stocks. Investors should approach them as speculations.

Conversely, you could just follow the lead of Buffett and de Vaulx and hold a lot of cash while you wait for better opportunities.

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