'Easy money' in stocks may be over
By TIM PARADIS
NEW YORK — Few analysts forecast this year's remarkable stock market rebound as major indexes were plunging to 12-year lows last March. But with most experts predicting the pace of stocks' gains will slow in 2010, there's reason to believe they'll be proven correct.
Stocks began the dramatic turnaround in March after Citigroup Inc. and other big banks said they were making money again. Stocks then climbed at a fairly steady pace amid signs of an economic recovery from the recession.
Investor fears about a potential financial system collapse played a big role in the early-in-the-year slump in stocks. Once it was clear that wasn't going to happen, the Standard & Poor's 500 index roared back 64.8 percent from its early March low, the biggest move since the Depression. For the full year, the index rose 23.5 percent, its best showing since 2003.
But sustaining that momentum in the new year likely would require a big drop in unemployment rate and strong gains in corporate profits, along with stable borrowing costs — a combination few analysts predict.
"The easy money has been made already," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist for PNC Wealth Management. "You're not going to see another 65 percent move in the next nine months."
The year's stats tell an incredible story across the financial markets:
• By March, the Dow Jones industrials had tumbled 53.8 percent from a record high in October 2007 to a low of 6,547.05. The index then rocketed 59.3 percent in the year's final nine months. The Dow is still down 26.4 percent from its 2007 peak of 14,164.53.
• U.S. stocks have gained about $5.2 trillion in value since the March low, putting the year's gain at $2.6 trillion. But it wasn't enough to give investors a win for the decade. The S&P fell 24.1 percent from 2000 to 2009.
• A share of Citigroup Inc., a bank hit hard by the financial crisis and recession, reached a high early in the year of $7.59, then fell to 97 cents in March. It ended the year at $3.31.
• The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, a benchmark for interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans, stands at 3.84 percent, up from 2.22 percent a year ago. Investors are no longer fleeing to the safety of U.S. government debt.
• Gold gained 24 percent for the year, as investors tried to shield their money from inflation.
Stock market gains often come months before economic recoveries are confirmed. That's because investors tend to bet on how they think business conditions will be six to nine months in the future. In downturns during the past 60 years, the S&P 500 index hit its bottom an average of four months before a recession ended and about nine months before unemployment reached its peak.
There are reasons to hope the market will start off 2010 well. In the first January after stocks start to recover from a bear market, the average gain in the S&P 500 index has been 3.7 percent, according to S&P's records.
But there are no guarantees about January, especially since companies will be releasing their fourth-quarter earnings.
Earnings are likely to look good on the surface when held up against the dismal performance of the fourth quarter of 2008. But businesses have relied on layoffs and other cuts to slash costs, and investors need to see a pickup in sales to believe the market's 2009 rally wasn't premature.
If sales or company predictions fall short of expectations, investors may well decide it's safer to pull some money out of stocks until it appears the recovery is truly picking up momentum.
Ron Kiddoo, chief investment officer at Cozad Asset Management in Champaign, Ill., said the market can continue its rally through 2010 only if investors see that companies are again hiring, bringing unemployment down from its present 10 percent, and that consumers are starting to spend more.
"We can only go on promises of economic growth for so long without actually seeing it take place," he said.
Kiddoo added, however, that the market could see a tug-of-war because the Federal Reserve will be reluctant to raise interest rates to ward off inflation if the economy doesn't strengthen. If rates remain at record lows, returns on cash and investments like government bonds will remain weak and create demand for riskier but higher-paying investments like stocks.
Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati, expects stocks will end 2010 at 10 percent to 15 percent higher, but said he also wouldn't be surprised to see a drop of 10 percent to 12 percent for certain periods of the year. "You're going to need to have some pullbacks and some breaks," he said.
Dan Cook, senior market analyst at IG Markets in Chicago, said he could see the Dow Jones industrials rising about 500 points to the 11,000 level in January but then pulling back as the government withdraws some of its economic support, such as low-interest loans to banks. He projects the market could fall about 15 percent from where it stands, putting the Dow industrials at the 8,800-9,000 level a year from now.