2011 – An Odd Year

2011 was an odd year.  The volatility reminded me of the Led Zeppelin song, “Dazed and Confused.”  The S&P 500 moved at least 2% on more than 60 days (which in 2005, for example, it didn’t do once).  Those people who have superior information and market sense — traders and professional money managers – did a poor job.  Most money managers underperformed their indices.

Meanwhile, at the start of the year, many predicted that US deficits and political bickering would lead to trouble in the Treasury markets.  Boy, were they wrong.  Even a S&P downgrade didn’t prevent Treasuries from having an astounding year.  Long-term bonds now yield less than the current inflation rate.  The 30-year Treasury generated a 35% return!  And, remember the dire warnings about municipal finance?  The BofA ML Municipal Master index rose 11.2%.

To top it off, the US equity markets finished the year in positive territory.  Large, high quality, dividend yielding companies were behind a 8.4% return for the Dow Jones Industrials.  The US equity markets outperformed the world index for the second year in a row.  The MSCI All Country ex-US Index fell 13.7%.

Therefore, a traditional balanced portfolio of bonds and stocks proved to be the prudent investment portfolio.  Attempting to time the market would’ve resembled walking a minefield.  An investor is more likely to make a wrong decision the bigger and more dramatic the swings.  And investors who are sitting on cash are generating negligible yield and lost money to inflation, which was around 2% as the Federal Reserve views it.

So, here we are in 2012.  The US economy has recovered the ground it lost during the recession.  It took three years to get here, longer than any recession since the Great Depression.  The recovery hasn’t been sufficient to restore employment; however, employment is improving.

In general, businesses are healthy.  The manufacturing sector is robust and hiring.  Autos and energy are currently experiencing a renaissance.  (Who would’ve thought so a few years ago?)  Residential real estate, though, is still depressed and is likely to remain so for many years.  Corporate balance sheets are strong and banks are reporting an uptick in business lending.

The Federal government continues to generate large deficits.  But, that’s what happens following recessions, while the economy is on the mend.  Remember, it is called the “Great Recession” for a reason.  Fiscal finance is not personal finance.  Too many people – especially politicians — confuse the two.  Families have to pay back their debt.  Governments don’t.  As Nobel laureate and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman states, “all they need to do is ensure that debt grows more slowly than their tax base.  The debt from WW II was never repaid; it just became increasingly irrelevant as the US economy grew, and with it the income subject to taxation.”  Looming entitlements (Social Security and Medicare) associated with the aging boomers is a ticking time bomb that will have to be defused.  But, the political rhetoric, for the most part, is muddling current and future needs.

Much has been said about Europe and China.  My advice is to ignore the superficial media coverage and refrain from the hysteria.  The Eurozone is facing historic challenges.  The solutions are complicated and will take time to implement.  My greatest concern is for the health of the European banking system.  We have seen how critical banks are to a healthy, modern global economy.  Disaster is not impending, and any deterioration in the situation will not be felt like an earthquake or tsunami.

China faces numerous uncertainties.  As a former graduate student of East Asian studies, I have a better perspective than most.  I think the US has nuanced and constructive economic and security policies.  We need to understand how rapidly the Chinese economic miracle occurred.  There is no precedent so Chinese economists and planners face formidable challenges.  The political system is arranged so differently from our own.  Their society is transforming in light speed, though their total per capita income still places them only 90th in the world, according to the IMF.

There you have it – my personal thumbnail assessment of 2011 and some opinions about issues that many people consider to be important in 2012.  So many of last year’s prognosticators were wrong, and even many of the most talented professional investors fared poorly.  Because I am responsible for protecting clients and making sure that they achieve their long-term financial goals, I don’t presume I have any superior handle on the future.

I don’t believe that Treasuries will perform like they did last year, but they may.  I think well managed, multinational companies with solid dividends and strong balance sheets will perform well, but they may not.  I think hedge funds managers are still among the best investors and will have a better year, but they may not.  I think commodities will perform well as an inflation hedge and a bet on emerging economies, but they may not.  Consequently, I am committed to diversification within all these asset classes.

Your comments mean a lot to me.  Please chime in and let me know what you think.

  • The S&P gained +11.7% this past quarter and is up +2.1% for the year.  The S&P 500 dividend yield is approximately 2%, higher than the 10-year Treasury yield.
  • The ML US Broad Market Bond Index was up +1.1% for the quarter and +7.9% for the year, reflecting how investors retreat to high quality bonds in times of uncertainty.
  • Hedge funds were down -4.8% for the year.
  • The Rogers International Commodity Index rose +4.7% for the quarter and fell -6.9% for the year and the U.S. Dollar was up +1.1% for the year.

Richard A. Glaser, CRPC
Financial Advisor
Merrill Lynch-Global Wealth Management
1241 Pittsford Victor Road | Pittsford, NY 14534
585-899-2616 direct | 585-672-4049 fax
richard_glaser@ml.com
NMLS ID: 579634
For info on me and my practice please go to:  http://fa.ml.com/RICHARD_GLASER

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