U.S. Stocks - 1st Quarter 2012


Last year the S&P 500 – a bell-weather for American stocks – was statistically unchanged from a price perspective.  When you add in dividends, the index was up 2%.  You may be feeling a lot more bumps and bruises from the year in stocks than a flat 12-month return would indicate.  Markets had wild swings and Ron Griess of the Chart Store (Hat Tip ritholtz.com) reports that 2011 was the seventeenth most volatile year for the S&P 500 since 1928.  Perhaps not surprisingly, 2008 and 2009 were even more volatile.  All of this has presented a behavioral challenge for investors with the temptation to time the market or get off the bumpy ride.

As with anything, it is very difficult to predict volatility.  It’s best to plan, though, for more ups and downs.  Volatility seems to come in patches with 15 of the 17 most volatile years for the S&P coming between 1929 and 1939 or between 2000 and 2011.  Managing your investment behavior through allocation planning, regular rebalancing, or the advice of an investment professional is critical to help avoid paralysis or bad timing.

Returns of large US companies surged ahead of their smaller peers. While large company S&P returned 2%, the Russell 2000, a common index for small companies, was down 4%.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average, even bigger than the S&P as measured by market capitalization, returned 8%.  Still, smaller stocks have outpaced large stocks cumulatively since March 2009 (when using the same indexes).

Many have watched for large companies to outperform due to compelling valuations and diversified revenue sources.  This trend may continue with strong profit margins, cash on the books, and still interesting valuations relative to larger stocks.

Dividend-paying companies, especially those outside of the financial sector, rewarded their investors handsomely in 2011.   Dividends fulfilled their promise last year helping both the total return of companies as well as raising interest from investors for their companies themselves.

We still like dividends for reasons Angie Palacios, CFP® I explained in a recent blog post.  Dividend yields are attractive relative to interest that bonds pay across the world.  Furthermore, as more boomers retire and seek a more steady income stream (no small feat in a low-yield world), a strategy that includes dividends may remain attractive relative to their cash-hoarding peers. *Dividends are not guaranteed and must be authorized by a company’s board of directors.