Stock markets rally despite global economic malaise
Taking risk pays off for investors in 2012 as central banks pour money into the system
You had perfectly good reasons for being cowardly about the stock market in 2012, but caution didn't serve you well.
Despite the fear that a euro-zone break-up and a European bank infection would set off another global financial crisis, despite the fear that China had overdone it with real estate construction and was on its way to a hard landing, and despite the fretting over ingrained unemployment in the United States, the S&P 500 Index ended the year up 13.4 per cent, at 1,426 points.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 7.3 per cent for the year and closed on Monday 166 points higher at 13,104 as news of a possible "fiscal cliff" compromise emerged.
It's evidence that the economy and the stock market can be on very different paths.
The S&P 500 still has not regained all that was lost between late 2007 and March 2009, when it plunged 57 per cent to 676 points, but it's getting close. The index has climbed more than 100 per cent since the fearful days of the financial crisis but remains below its September 24, 2007, high of 1,526 points.
With the benefit of dividends, investors have recovered what they lost.
The 13.4 per cent gain in 2012 was no small feat for a year when economists worried repeatedly about the globe dipping back into recession. An average year in the stock market provides investors with a gain of 9.8 per cent. Despite the unusual strength of stocks, the US economy remained lacklustre - growing at about 2 per cent rather than the 4 per cent economists say is necessary to get Americans back into jobs.
Now, analysts are debating whether stocks have climbed too high, given continuing risks in the economy worldwide and moves towards austerity in the US and Europe as governments move towards dealing with their debts.
Others argue that if US lawmakers can finally move past the squabbling and phase in tax increases and spending cuts, the stock market will rally in relief.
"The global economy stumbles into 2013," said economist Ethan Harris of Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He does not think the "uncertainty shock" of the fiscal cliff will be resolved until spring.
IHS Global Insight economist Nariman Behravesh predicts that "the economies of southern Europe will remain deep in recession territory" as they grapple with austerity and high unemployment. Both Greece and Spain have unemployment of more than 25 per cent, or rates slightly higher than the US had during the Depression.
The turning point in jittery stock markets came when bailouts were provided, and especially when European Central Bank president Mario Draghi promised in July to do "whatever it takes" to keep the euro zone together. With US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke also providing another round of stimulus known as "quantitative easing", investors worldwide lived by a common investor slogan: "Don't fight the Fed."
In other words, when central banks like the Fed are pouring money into the system, investors usually buy stocks. Europe's Stoxx 600 Index climbed 14.4 per cent for the year while German stocks gained more than 29 per cent.
In the US, financial companies and stocks that rely on consumer spending on non-necessities did best. Financial stocks climbed 25 per cent and consumer discretionary companies rose 20 per cent.
"Risk paid off handsomely," said Citigroup strategist Tobias Levkovich. Investors sought the safety of utility stocks while worried about a slowing global economy in the second quarter, but that changed when bailouts and stimulus arrived in the summer.
Utilities were the worst performers of the year, declining 4.2 per cent - in part because investors became concerned about higher dividend taxes during the fiscal cliff debate.
Lai See is on holiday