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Up, Up, and Away

Wall Street has a way of swinging from irrational fear to exuberance based on marginal changes in the underlying economy. With the news of the Dow back to its pre-Lehman high (but still off its all-time highs) and the Nasdaq back above 3,000 (but well below 5,000), you wonder if the only money to be made will be from trading on the exuberance and fear swings.

February 2012 Performance Review

Typically emerging market stocks rebound faster than the US stock market when the market heads back up (like we saw in January) but there seems to be some fears around that the emerging markets era of outperformance is waning and the US may be more insulated than faster growing markets from Europe’s ongoing troubles. 

Less than Zero

The biggest long-term problem facing investors right now isn't U.S. debt, or even European debt. It’s the likely near-indefinite future of very low returns on the lowest risk investments: CDs, money market funds, Treasury bills and notes, savings bonds, and even shorter-term corporate and municipal bonds. Any assets with a maximum downside of 5% or less probably have a likely upside of less than 2% per year for the foreseeable future. 

January 2012 Performance Review

The big gains in foreign markets doesn’t quite wipe out last year’s losses, but it’s a good start to the year. The bond market highlights this re-embracing of risk. Higher risk bonds topped the list in January with emerging market bond funds up around 5%, followed by high yield bonds up over 3%. The safest government bond funds were roughly flat to slightly up. 

A Look Back at 2011

The year 2011 delivered plenty of volatility and little reward for stock investors. Equity returns were largely inversely related to risk – the smaller in size or more foreign the stock, the worse it performed. It was the same story all year; Europe teetered on the edge of a debt collapse while the U.S. economy teetered on the edge of recession.

December 2011 Performance Review

For 2011 our Conservative Portfolio was up a respectable 3.5% while our Aggressive Portfolio’s winners couldn’t overtake the drag of foreign markets and financials, giving us a 0.41% loss for the year. A drop of less than one-half of one percent may compare favorably to most global portfolios (the Morningstar Global Allocation category was down about 4% for 2011), but we consider it a disappointing result.

Gold Metal Performance

Gold is set to deliver an astonishing 11th straight calendar year gain in 2011, a dramatic reversal of an equally astonishing 20-year slide that began in 1980 when the gold bubble collapsed. For 13 of the calendar years between 1981 and 2000, gold was a loser, in contrast to the S&P 500, which rose during 17 of those same 20 years. This stark comparison doesn’t do justice to the real money implications of sharply diverting ways. A thousand dollars invested into the Vanguard 500 Index Fund at the end of 1980 (even without 1980's 30%+ gain) grew to $17,524 by the end of 2000. The same investment in gold crumbled to $465.

November 2011 Performance Review

October’s sharp rebound fizzled in November, and a late month rebound wasn’t enough to push the S&P 500 back into positive territory. The market’s slight dip for the month was similar to the bond market’s slip, resulting in a down November for most investment mixes.  It doesn’t seem it but the S&P 500 is up just under 1% (with dividends) for the year. Once again, foreign stocks underperformed US stocks last month.

The Sourpuss Stock Market

As of November 14th, the S&P 500 is down a fraction, but up about 1% if you include dividends. In other words, despite the U.S. debt ceiling battles, euro debt chaos, and slow economic growth blues, investors are still beating money market funds and CDs. Granted, CDs don’t fall nearly 20% in a few weeks, look like they're going to slide another 50%, and then  recover. Such is the new market: low returns, sky-high volatility.

October 2011 Performance Review

One oddity of the new market environment is everything that is somewhat risky to very risky has been moving in near perfect sync - so wild swings tend to hit everything the same way, making well diversified portfolios appear quite risky. Longer term government bonds –which have limited long term appeal at current low rates, remain the best offset to sliding everything, almost always going up significantly when fears drive riskier global assets down.