Markets are celebrating the holidays in style, with several key benchmarks finishing the final session before Christmas at or near record highs.
In Canada, the S&P/TSX Composite advanced further into uncharted territory on Tuesday. It is up 20 per cent so far this year.
In the United States, the S&P 500, the Dow Jones industrial average and the Nasdaq Composite all hit record highs this week. The S&P 500, the most widely used benchmark for U.S. stocks, has soared 28.6 per cent since January.
Outside North America, markets have yet to challenge records, but have still managed to surge by double-digit amounts. Despite all the uncertainties around Brexit, the FTSE 100 in Britain has climbed 13.4 per cent this year. Meanwhile, the Nikkei 225 in Japan has gained 19.1 per cent and China’s CSI 300 has notched a 32.6-per-cent advance.
In short, anyone who put money into stocks early in 2019 has something to celebrate this holiday season. So, for that matter, has anyone who put money into just about anything.
A diversified Canadian bond portfolio generated a return of more than 7 per cent since the start of January. Gold jumped 17 per cent during the same period, while bitcoin roared ahead 95 per cent.
Even Canadian real estate, an expensive asset class by just about any definition, eked out a gain. The Teranet National Composite House Price Index climbed 1.43 per cent in the year to November, the most recent data available.
The all-encompassing nature of this year’s boom reflects its common roots, notably the willingness of central banks around the globe to cut interest rates to support asset prices.
While the Bank of Canada remains a notable exception, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and a host of other central banks, from Australia to India, all trimmed their key policy rates during the year. Easy money has helped fuel a widespread buying boom and encouraged investors to move out of bonds and into riskier assets.
Some mildly encouraging signs of a trade detente between the U.S. and China have provided additional encouragement for global stock markets in recent weeks. The MSCI World Index, which tracks 23 developed markets around the globe, has jumped 24.8 per cent so far this year, which puts it on track for its best year since 2013. It, too, is at a record high.
Can the gains continue? Many observers are skeptical.
In a recent note, Citigroup strategist Tobias Levkovich warned that the stock market’s big advance this year is largely a reflection of the mass panic late last year, when share prices tumbled on fears that the Federal Reserve would keep on raising interest rates. The fourth-quarter swoon in 2018 created an unusually low basis for year-over-year comparisons.
Without that set-up, “a repeat of 2019’s powerful equity market gains is unlikely,” he cautioned. Not only are corporate earnings likely to expand at only a modest pace in 2020, but the U.S. presidential election has the potential to play havoc with investors’ expectations for everything from taxes to health policy.
In a similar vein, Jonas Goltermann, senior markets economist at Capital Economics in London, sees stocks barely edging ahead over the next year. He expects the S&P 500 index to finish 2020 around 3,300, only a small increase from its current level of 3,223. He has similarly muted forecasts for other markets.
“Equity markets will make only modest gains in 2020,” Mr. Goltermann wrote in a report this week, because “earnings growth has been weak or negative in most markets, and in aggregate, earnings have fallen globally.”
Perhaps so. But the investors who have propelled so many market benchmarks to record levels are betting otherwise.
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