Insights & Advice

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2012 could be another up and down year

It is that time of year when market strategists stick their neck out and predict the future. No never mind that most, if not all, of their predictions will turn out to be wrong. Investors clamor for yearly forecasts regardless of accuracy, so here’s mine.

Volatility ahead

This year a lot can happen. So much depends on forces outside our control that predicting the markets will be up (or down) X percent by year end would be criminal at best. Instead, I would like to broadly outline the possibilities and risks we face in the months ahead and how best to play them.

As I predicted, we are currently in a rally that began before Christmas and should extend for the next few weeks if not months. I don’t think we will hit any new highs during this period or if we do it won’t be until April. Europe will most likely continue to dominate the news, so we should continue to experience quite a bit of volatility. Be prepared for the 1-3% up days followed by the same or more on the down days.

 I believe that ultimately Europe will get its house in order but between here and there the markets will be quite choppy. A foot in both the equity and bond markets should play best in that environment. Stick with dividend and large cap stocks and defensive sectors in this period along with corporate and high yield bonds and short-term paper.

Although the U.S. economy continues to improve, it is nothing to write home about. Without additional help from the do-nothings in Washington or an end-run by the president around Congress, unemployment will remain high and growth between 1.5-2.5%.That is an optimistic scenario, which assumes that a European recession is inevitable but at the same time contained to their side of the ocean.

If, on the other hand, it appears that Europe’s recession is spreading globally then all bets are off. Remember too that stock markets sell first and collect the facts later in this day and age. Just a hint that something like that is in the cards would be enough for  a major sell-off in world markets Therefore it wouldn’t surprise me if we have a classic “sell in May (or April) and go away” scenario this year.

Granted that would be a worse case scenario but one we must all be prepared for. Further hiccups in Europe, fear of renewed recession here at home without further monetary or fiscal stimulus from the Fed or White House could spook sending the S&P 500 Index back towards its 2011 lows at 1,100. Granted, that would be a worse case scenario but one we must all be prepared for. A switch to all bonds would be best in that case.

But remember, we are also in an election year and markets usually begin to anticipate that in the second half of the year. This could give investors an opportunity once again to buy the dip. If history is any guide, the Obama Administration will want to do anything and everything they can to boost the economy going into the November election. This year that argument should carry additional weight since both parties are campaigning on the economy and unemployment.

In that case, we could see a major move higher in the averages off the bottom this summer that could move the U.S. market to substantial gains by the end of the year and into 2014.  Now, wouldn’t that be nice?

If some or most of my forecasts come true for this year, it is quite obvious that a buy and hold strategy will be a recipe for disaster as will all cash, all bonds or all stocks. There will be times during the year investors will want to be both aggressive and defensive and it will be a lot of work, just like last year. There is an old saying that “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” or in this case, hire a money manager that can make those decisions for you, but be sure you pick the right one.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Portfolio Advice