Global stock markets in the U.S. and abroad weathered a temporary setback in January and early February and then rallied to extend beyond one year the new bull market. In its best 1st quarter since 1999, the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index rose 4.9%. This marked the 4th consecutive positive quarter without a correction in excess of 10% and increased to 72.9% the advance dating back to March 9 of last year. Despite fears of inflation and central bank tightening in China, India, and Brazil, the ishares Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) rose 1.5%, which increased its advance from last March to 111.0%. Although Europe was plagued with sluggish growth and a sovereign debt crisis, the ishares Developed Countries ETF (EFA) was up 1.3% for an overall gain of 76.6%.
The catalysts for the early quarter’s correction, which amounted to declines of -8.1% for the S&P 500 Index, -12.9% for the EFA, and -14.7% for the EEM, originated in China and Greece. In January, the Chinese government, concerned that strong economic growth would accelerate rising prices for real estate and food, introduced curbs on excessive bank lending. Alarmist speculation from some China watchers that the Chinese policy makers were about to prick a bubble economy triggered profit taking. The inflation contagion spread quickly to the Indian and Brazilian markets, where fears mounted that interest rate hikes by their central banks might choke economic growth. The storm passed quickly and all three markets recovered, but inflation clouds were still visible on the horizon as the quarter came to a close.
If the problem in China, India, and Brazil was that their economies were too healthy, the problem in Greece, Portugal, and Spain was that their economies were too sick. Many of the Euro area governments resorted to huge budget deficits to fight the recession, but national debts measured as a per cent of GDP were most worrisome in these countries. Although there was widespread agreement that a Greek default was unacceptable, the crisis was exacerbated by fierce worker resistance to belt tightening measures proposed by the Greek government and ugly bickering among Euro area governments as to who would finance a solution to the problem. As European stock markets trembled and the euro dropped like a stone, government leaders, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) finally worked out a compromise. By the end of March, European stock markets recovered and the euro stabilized, but the potential for debt headaches down the road persisted.
Despite high unemployment, anemic consumer spending, a weak housing market, humongous federal deficit projections, and unseemly, vicious partisan squabbling in Congress, U.S. stock investors focused on positive developments. Driving optimism in the U.S. stock market upward were fresh data showing economic recovery, strong and above-expectation 4th quarter corporate profit reports, and comforting statements by the Federal Reserve that inflation was under control and an accommodative policy would be maintained for “an extended period.” An indication of investors’ confidence was that the best performing S&P 500 industry sector was consumer discretion (+11.8%) followed by industrials (+9.3%). On the bottom rungs of the ladder were the relatively conservative telecommunications (-2.5%) and utilities (-2.9%). In their optimism, investors preferred low-quality stocks, and their appetite for many of the big blue-chip stocks was meager: suffering declines were Exxon Mobil (-1.8%), Microsoft (-3.9%), AT&T (-7.8%), Pfizer (-5.7%) and Coca-Cola (-3.5%).
An interesting and noteworthy development in the 1st quarter was that the gain in the U.S. stock market was accompanied by a rise in the dollar. Since early 2008, the dollar and stock prices had exhibited a pronounced inverse relationship, and for both to move up together was seen by many investors as a positive sign that recession fears had subsided. Commodity prices usually fall when the dollar rises, and the CRB Commodity Index declined 3.5% during the quarter. On the other hand, gold gained $15.50/ounce to $1115.50/ounce and oil rose from $79.36/barrel to $83.76/barrel.
The bond market was relatively calm during the quarter: the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note started the quarter at 3.84%, never rose above 3.88% nor fell below 3.56%, and ended the quarter at 3.83%. Thirsty for yield, individual investors continued to pour money into investment-grade and high-yield bond mutual funds despite the huge borrowing needs of the government and expectations that the Federal Reserve will push interest rates higher later in the year. As a result, the spread between U.S. Treasury notes and corporate bonds narrowed to levels not seen since late 2007. An ominous development in March was that both investment-grade and high-yield “junk” corporate bond issuers increased significantly their issuance of new bonds, thereby indicating their view that yields will most likely rise (and prices fall) in the future.