Investors last week faced a tug of war between signs of an improving U.S. economy and lingering concerns about Europe’s debt malaise. These worries moved to center stage on Friday when Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit ratings of France, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal and four other European countries. Also denting sentiment were rumblings out of Greece, suggesting that the recently agreed bailout terms were now in doubt.
After starting off the year better than any other since 2006, the S&P 500 Index had its worst day of the year on Friday, but nevertheless remained in positive territory for the week as a whole.
Trading on stock markets during the second week of 2012 was again characterized by light volume, but it was nevertheless a good week for most risky assets such as stocks, corporate bonds, and precious and industrial metals.
Equities gained ground for the second consecutive week as shown by the performance of the two principal global equity benchmarks: the MSCI World Index closed 0.8% higher and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index surged by 2.8%. In a clear reversal of last year’s pattern, emerging markets have so far this year outperformed developed markets by a factor of 2.5.
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On the issue of mature versus emerging markets, well-known investor Marc Faber said:
What we had in 2008 was the outperformance of the U.S. and emerging economies’ stock markets and commodity markets got hit very hard, but it lead to a major low in emerging stock markets that bottomed out between October 2008 and March 2009. After that emerging stock markets outperformed the U.S. until the end of 2010. So I think we may get a similar picture. I read all the strategies that say we should invest in the U.S. I say maybe that’s correct for the next three months or so but I would rather be looking at an entry point in emerging markets over the next six to nine months.
As far as the U.S. is concerned, all the benchmark indices ended the week in positive territory, with the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 0.9% and 0.5% respectively. But the real star was the Russell 2000 Index that improved by 1.9%. This is a good sign for the overall market as outperformance by small caps is normally associated with rising markets.
Al the U.S. indices are also in positive territory for the year to date, ranging from +1.7% to +4.1% in the case of the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index.
When one considers the 10 economic sectors of the S&P 500 Index, it is clear that the cyclical sectors were the stronger ones over the past few days. These are sectors such as Materials (+3.9%), Financials (+3.1%) and Industrials (+2.6%). Not shown, Homebuilders (+7.5) surged on the back of Lennar (NYSE:LEN) reporting a solid increase in new orders. The lagging sectors were the defensive ones such as Utilities (-0.4%) and Consumer Staples (-0.3%). Energy also fared badly and was down by 1.4%. This pattern of cyclical sectors outperforming defensive sectors is what one would expect in the bull phase of a stock market.
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Moving beyond the U.S., most stock markets ended the second week of the year in the black. Among mature markets, strong performers included Singapore (+2.8%), Australia (+2.2%), France (+1.9% – notwithstanding the country’s credit rating cut) and, surprisingly, Spain (+1.9%). In the emerging markets category, China at long last rebounded, closing 3.7% higher. Also performing well were Hong Kong (+3.3%) and Brazil (+2.3%). The notable downmarkets included Portugal, New Zealand, Holland and the U.K.
Prior to last week’s improvement, the Shanghai Stock Exchange Index dropped by more than 30% from its high of August 2010. The trigger for the turnaround was Chinese bank loans and M2 money supply both rising more than expected as Chinese officials started taking action to stimulate the economy. Chinese equities look attractive from a valuation point of view and it would seem that investor concerns about slowing economic growth and a further shake-out in the property market have already been discounted by stock prices.