The stock market ended a tumultuous year right where it started.
In the final tally, despite big climbs and falls, unexpected blows and surprising triumphs, all the hullabaloo proved for naught. On Friday, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index closed at 1,257.60. That’s exactly 0.04 point below where it started the year.
“If you fell asleep January 1 and woke up today, you’d think nothing had happened,” says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank. “But it’s been up and down all year. It’s been crazy.”
It was a year when U.S. companies were supposed to run out of ways to make big profits. But they didn’t, and in fact generated more than ever. It was a year when the U.S. lost its prized triple-A credit rating, which should have spooked buyers of its bonds. Instead investors bought more of them and made Treasurys one of the best bets of 2011. It was a year when stocks caught fire, then collapsed to near bear-market lows.
Among stocks, there were some surprising winners. Scaredy-cat investors who bought the most conservative and dullest of stocks – utilities – gained 15 percent this year, the biggest price rise of the ten industry sectors in the S&P 500. Other winning groups were consumer staples, up 11 percent, and health care companies, 10 percent.
Other market curiosities:
• Bad year, great quarter. Despite disappointing returns in 2011, the last three months of the year were impressive, which could bode well. The S&P 500 rose 11 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average, comprising 30 big stocks, climbed 1,344 points, or 12 percent. That was the largest quarterly point gain in its history. The Dow closed up 5.5 percent for the year.
• Best of the bad. U.S. stocks delivered little this year, but other markets did even worse, including ones in fast-growing economies. Brazil’s Bovespa index fell 18 percent in 2011. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 20 percent. In Europe, many of the biggest markets ended down in 2011. Britain’s FTSE 100 lost 5.6 percent, Germany’s DAX 14.7 percent.
• Buy American is back. A broad index of the Treasury market gained 9.6 percent, despite the fact that the U.S. government is now slightly less likely to repay its debt, at least according to Standard & Poor’s. In August, the rating agency stripped the U.S. of its triple-A rating, citing mounting U.S. debt and political squabbling over what to do about it.
For stock investors, 2011 wasn’t supposed to end this way.
At the start of the year, the recession was officially 1.5 years behind us and the recovery was finally gaining momentum. The economy added an average of more than 200,000 jobs a month in February, March and April. And U.S. companies kept reporting big jumps in profits, defying naysayers.
The stock market roared in approval. On April 29, the S&P closed at 1,363, double its recessionary low of March 2009.
Then manufacturing slowed, companies stopped hiring and consumer confidence plummeted, taking with it those hopes of big stock gains for the year. Adding to the misery, Japan was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami. That shut down factories run by crucial parts suppliers to U.S. firms, in particular auto makers.
Gridlock in Washington didn’t help. After much squabbling, politicians eventually decided to raise the cap on how much the federal government can borrow in early August. But the heated debate took its toll. The Dow Jones industrial average swung more than 400 points four days in a row – down and up and down and up.
Overhanging it all was fear that the debt crisis in Greece had spread to Italy and Spain, countries too large for other European nations to bail out.
Talk of another blockbuster year for stocks turned to dark musings about the possibility of another U.S. recession. And so stocks kept falling. On Oct. 3, stocks had dropped 19 percent from their April high. That was just one point short of an official bear market.
Since then, U.S. housing starts have increased, factories are producing more, unemployment claims fell and U.S. economic growth rose. And companies are still generating impressive profits. Those in the S&P 500 have increased profits by double-digits percentages for nine quarters in a row.