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Prieur's Perspective: A Calmer 2009?


Investors hope for promising returns in the new year.


Investors spent the holiday-shortened Christmas week in an un-merry mood, digesting more gloomy economic data and taking stock of a tumultuous 2008.

With the S&P 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Index down by 35.8% and 40.6% respectively for the year to date, many investors would be anxious to wave the old year goodbye. But changing the calendar digits from '08 to '09 will regrettably not make an iota's difference to the perilous nature of the investment environment facing us as we usher in the New Year.

Come January 1, investors will not only be hung over from 2008's market rout (and possibly the previous night's exuberance), but also will be battling with the implications of the credit crisis for the global economy and financial markets, and in particular with the question of where to invest for decent returns during 2009. (Also see my post "Video-o-rama: Will markets bail you out in '09?".)

"2008 was the year of the crisis of the financial system. 2009, unfortunately, will be the crisis of the economic system," said Mohamed El-Erian, co-CEO of Pimco in a CNBC interview. "So the news is going to be full of unemployment, defaults, etc."

Most markets were down during the past week (albeit on light holiday volume), with the MSCI World Index (-1.5%), the MSCI Emerging Markets Index (-5.2%), the US Dollar Index (-0.3%), the Reuters/Jeffries CRB Index (-1.6%), West Texas Intermediate crude (-11.0%) and US government bonds all closing in the red.

However, not all the Christmas stockings were left empty. On the equities side, the Japanese Nikkei 225 Average (+1.8%) and the Russian Trading System Index (+5.8%) confounded the bears as both countries are faced with a particularly grim economic situation. Among fixed-income instruments, emerging-market government debt and corporate bonds were in demand. Gold (+4.0%) and platinum (+4.5%) also fared excellently – for the third week running – on the back of a solid supply/demand situation, store-of-value considerations and upbeat charting patterns.

But if Santa has not yet made his way to your investment portfolio, don't despair. According to Jeffrey Hirsch (Stock Trader's Almanac), the "Santa Claus Rally" normally occurs during the last five trading days of a year and the ensuing first two trading sessions of the new year. During this seven-day period stocks historically tend to advance (by 1.5% on average since 1950), but when recording a loss, they frequently traded much lower in the new year.

Christmas Eve trading on Wednesday marked the start of this year's Santa Claus Rally period, which ends on Monday, January 5. So far so good, as the combined gain for the S&P 500 Index for the first two days (Wednesday and Friday) was 1.1%.

Given the extreme turbulence that characterized stock markets during 2008, most investors would be wishing for a calmer 2009. The red line in the chart below shows the daily percentage change in the S&P 500 Index (green line), illustrating how the volatility has been declining since the panic levels of October.

Still on the topic of volatility, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has declined from 80.9 in November to 43.4 on Friday. It is not uncommon for short-term volatility to be at extreme levels at bottom turning points, and for stocks to improve as the "storm" grows quieter.

Heading into the new year, President-elect Barack Obama's transition team is still negotiating the nuts and bolts of its economic stimulus plan with Congress, but the two-year jobs target has in the meantime been raised by 500,000 to 3 million. The planning is to have legislation for the package ready by the time Obama takes office on January 20.

As far as bailout news goes, on Christmas Eve the Fed accepted GMAC's application to become a bank holding company. The lending unit thereby qualifies for TARP funds and hopefully won't have to cut off credit to the General Motors (GM) dealerships.

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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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