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What Happened in 2011…What’s up for 2012?

What Happened in 2011…What’s up for 2012?

2011 began as a year with much promise for investors. After losing nearly 40% in 2008, the S&P 500 gained nearly 20% in 2009 and 13% in 2010. These results convinced many that a long steady recovery from 2008 was ongoing. The first six weeks of 2011, which saw a healthy 6% gain in the S&P 500, seemed to confirm this expectation. Most attributed the stock gains to an overriding belief that the Great Recession was finally winding down. But then a new chapter set in. Click here to access full report >>

As the first quarter ended, major events such as the cascading Arab Spring and the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan, initiated a round of major volatility. The Japanese stock market lost 19% in 5 business days. But these political and climactic events were not enough to shake confidence. Even the Japanese market recovered, rallying 13% by the end of March (Bloomberg, 2011). It took the lingering concern over unsustainable debt to turn the market on its ear.

In the first half of the year, investors still did not appreciate the magnitude of the sovereign debt problems in Europe and the United States. With fear taking a back seat, by May the S&P was up 8.4% on the year (Bloomberg, 2011), which turned out to be the high water mark of 2011. But the second half of the year saw both the slow motion train wreck of European sovereign debt negotiations and the comic charade in Washington over extension of the debt ceiling. The resulting uncertainty regarding the euro and a downgrade of US debt returned substantial amounts of fear into the marketplace. In September the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee sent markets lower still when it failed to explicitly extend quantitative easing. Since then, amid a general realization that the lackluster statistics were not a temporary blip, stock market performance has been sideways and highly volatile. Foreign markets finished down on the year, but it was the volatility that left investors shell shocked. Should we expect more of the same in 2012?

While the initial boost of the unprecedented monetary stimulus that was injected into markets in 2008, 2009, and 2010 had an unquestionably positive effect on stock prices, it did not engender sustainable real growth. In our view, the developed world simply can’t grow encumbered with such excess debt. Consumers and business are trying to lay the foundation for future growth by continuing to deleverage. Yet at the same time, governments are counteracting the deleveraging in the private sector with large fiscal deficits and printed money. Total leverage therefore is not decreasing and deflationary forces have not been allowed to take hold.

With the monetary skids so generously greased, we think it unlikely markets will crash as they did in 2008, at least in the short run. On the other hand, we don’t see any catalyst for a runaway rally either. In our view maintaining a large cash position, however tempting, is unwise given that negative real interest rates will consistently erode purchasing power. But until a solution is found for the European debt crisis, heightened volatility is likely. Aggressive corrections will likely be met by equally aggressive market rallies as monetary stimulus remains extremely accomodative. As long as governments are willing to coordinate world-wide liquidity injections, they will likely have the ability to kick the can down the road for the immediate future. There is much evidence to conclude that this level of coordination is increasing. 

Our expected inflation in asset prices runs counter to the prevailing negative sentiment. Short interest on the New York Stock Exchange is near record levels not seen since 2009 (Bloomberg, 2011). Economists have almost cut their 2012 real GDP growth estimates for the G10 in half over the course of 2011 (Bloomberg, 2011).

The next round of quantitative easing won’t necessarily be triggered by lower asset prices or sustained high unemployment. It could come simply as a way of financing the 2012 US deficit. In 2011 the Fed bought approximately $720 billion of US Treasury securities (Bloomberg, 2011), in essence financing 59% of the US deficit with printed money. We should expect the same with this year’s similarly ugly projected deficit. More easing from the Fed should be a positive for commodities, stocks and foreign currencies.

While most pundits view the most recent summit of European leaders a failure, the measures they did introduce seem likely to put a lid on solvency risk for some time. The fundamentals aren’t fixed, but in our opinion policy makers in Europe have bought themselves some time. Hopes are high that the US is immune from the troubles the world faces, yet in our opinion it is part of the cause. We expect that analysts will likely reduce their American growth estimates to an equal level with their international peers. As a result we expect US stocks to underperform international stocks in 2012.

This all lends itself to a volatile, but nearly flat trend for stocks and bonds in 2012. Fundamentals don’t yet support a run-up, but easy money may put a floor underneath assets over the short run. Unless the situation were to change, we believe aggressive dips in stock markets represent buying opportunities. We tend to think bonds will underperform equities in 2012, given their dramatic outperforming in 2011.

Euro Pacific remains underweight the Euro, Yen, Pound and Dollar. We seek to invest in securities that have minimal exposure to these regions both in our equity and bond portfolios. We continue to believe that by focusing on countries with the strongest fundamentals, we will outperform our peers over the long run. 

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