Throughout 2011, investors seeking clues regarding the strength of business conditions or the prospects for stock prices were confronted with ample reason to rejoice or despair. Optimists could cite the strong recovery in corporate profits and dividends, the substantial levels of cash on corporate balance sheets, low interest rates and inflation, a booming domestic energy sector, continuing strength in auto sales, and record-high share prices for leading multinationals such as Apple, IBM, and McDonald’s. Pessimists could point to persistently high unemployment, slumping home prices, tepid growth in retail sales, worrisome levels of government debt at home and abroad, and political gridlock in both Congress and various state legislatures.
Although the broad market indices showed little change for the year, there were opportunities to make a bundle—or lose one. Among the thirty constituents of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, thirteen had double-digit total returns, including McDonald’s (34.0%), Pfizer (28.6%), and IBM (27.3%). But losing money was just as easy: The three worst performers in the Dow were Hewlett-Packard (–37.8%), Alcoa (–43.0%), and Bank of America (–58.0%). If nothing else, the substantial spread between these winners and losers discredits the argument we sometimes hear that all stocks are now marching in lockstep and that diversification is ineffective.
The chart above features the year’s most highly publicized events in the context of the Russell 3000 Index, a broad indicator of US stock market performance. These events are not offered as an explanation of market performance, but as an illustration that a volatile news environment can challenge even the most disciplined long-term investors. Equity investors around the world had a disappointing year in 2011 as thirty-seven out of forty-five world-wide markets posted negative returns. The US did well on a relative basis and was the only major market to achieve a positive total return, although the margin of victory was slim. Total return for the Russell 3000 Index was up 1.03%.
US stocks experienced some of the biggest swings in years. But bright spots could be seen in the fixed income arena, where a flight to quality triggered by the euro debt crisis and US credit downgrade boosted returns on US government securities, inflation-protected securities, and municipal bonds.
Most countries underperformed the US in 2011. The markets around the world had so much going on that investors couldn’t absorb all the information. The World Stock Market Performance chart below offers a snapshot of global stock market performance along with actual headlines from publications around the world.
Achieving even modest results in 2011 required more discipline than many investors could muster, since investor sentiment fluctuated dramatically throughout the year and the temptation to enhance returns through judicious market timing often proved irresistible. Many investors (as well as some professional advisors) apparently decided to switch their investment philosophy to a market timing strategy in the midst of an unusually stressful period in the financial markets. We suspect few of those adopting the change would have been able to clearly articulate their investing beliefs and why they had shifted. The most important thing about an investment philosophy is that you have one and have the discipline to stick with it. In 2011 global diversification and discipline proved as important as ever.