S&P 500 Rises Most Since ’97 as Bernanke Helps Offset Europe

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke
U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. stocks are off to the best start in 15 years as investors speculate Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has done enough to insulate the economy from Europe’s debt crisis.

The S&P 500 has gained 4.5 percent, the most since it rose 4.8 percent over the first 12 days in 1997, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Stocks are overcoming earnings that trailed estimates by the widest margin in three years as improvements in hiring, manufacturing and car sales extend the biggest fourth-quarter advance since 2003.

Bernanke has left the target rate on overnight loans between banks unchanged since the end of 2008, the longest stretch since at least 1971, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The policy may push more investors toward equities after yields on 10-year Treasuries finished 2011 within a quarter-point of a record low and the economy grew at an estimated 3.1 percent rate last quarter, said John Carey of Pioneer Investments.

“It’s probably a good idea not to fight someone so much bigger than you are,” Carey, a Boston-based money manager at Pioneer, said in a telephone interview on Jan. 18. The firm oversees about $220 billion. “The Fed will probably stay on its course,” he said. “I haven’t heard any indication that the Fed is considering boosting interest rates, so stocks will look attractive from an income point of view.”

Worst to First

Three companies whose declines were among the 10 biggest in the S&P 500 last year are among the 10 largest gainers in 2012. Netflix Inc., the Los Gatos, California-based movie service, climbed 49 percent. Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America Corp., which lost 58 percent in 2011, gained 25 percent this year, while Sears Holdings Corp. in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, rose 36 percent after losing 56 percent.

The S&P 500 advanced seven of the first eight days this year, something that has occurred eight times since 1900, data compiled by JPMorgan Chase & Co. show. The mean return those years was 16 percent, the data show.

About $640 billion has been added to the value of American shares this year and the S&P 500 reached an almost six-month high yesterday, as economic reports outweighed concern that downgrades for European nations would worsen the debt crisis. France was stripped of its top rating by S&P and banks suspended talks with Greece over restructuring.

Economic Growth

“Europe is important but it’s not the end of the world if they see a recession,” James Dunigan, who helps oversee $107 billion as chief investment officer in Philadelphia for PNC Wealth Management, said in a Jan. 17 phone interview. “We’re starting to see that modest economic growth expectation for this year.”

The average forecast for U.S. gross domestic product growth this year has been rising since October. From a low of 2 percent, the median estimate in a survey of 72 economists has climbed to 2.3 percent, including a 0.2-point increase on Jan. 12 that represented the biggest one-day gain since projections for 2012 began, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Optimism about the economy is helping investors shrug off fourth-quarter earnings that have trailed estimates. Profit fell short of analyst forecasts by an average of 4.3 percent among the eight S&P 500 companies that posted results in the first week of earnings season, the data show. Three other quarters with a worse first week of earnings season were in 2007 and 2008 as the economy was slipping into to the worst recession since the 1930s.

Five-Month High

The S&P 500 increased 1.1 percent to 1,308.04 yesterday, the highest level since July 26. It climbed 1.4 percent over four days last week, reaching a five-month high of 1,292.48 on Jan. 11 even after Microsoft Corp., the world’s biggest software maker, said personal computer sales were probably worse than forecast in the fourth quarter. The gauge advanced 0.5 percent to 1,314.50 today.

“This year isn’t going to be about earnings,” James Paulsen, who helps oversee about $333 billion as chief investment strategist at Minneapolis-based Wells Capital Management, said in a Jan. 17 phone interview. “There’s a lot of value in the market that could come just from people calming down about this recession, depression calamity. It’ll be about expanding that multiple.”

Combined S&P 500 profit is forecast to reach $104.64 a share in 2012, the highest level ever, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The benchmark index is trading at 12.6 times forecast earnings. That compares with 13.4 at the beginning of 2011. The S&P 500’s average ratio in 2011 was 14.1 based on reported earnings. The five-decade mean is 16.4.

Unprecedented Stimulus

Central banks around the world have taken unprecedented measures to prevent the European debt crisis from triggering a global recession. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi last month unveiled plans to offer banks 36-month, 1 percent loans through two so-called longer-term refinancing operations, known as LTROs.

That combined with investor speculation of a third round of stimulus by the Fed and bets China’s central bank will ease monetary policy has fueled stock prices, according to Doug Noland, the money manager for Pittsburgh-based Federated Investors Inc.’s Prudent Bear Fund, which oversees $1.3 billion. It won’t last, he said.

“Markets over the years have become programmed to focus a lot on monetary stimulus,” Noland said in a Jan. 17 phone interview. “It’s a very dangerous reason to be buying equities. We saw in 2011 how QE2 didn’t have much fire power. We’ve seen European policy making repeatedly disappoint the markets.”

Target Rate Unchanged

Fed policy makers have left their target rate unchanged since the end of 2008, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The S&P 500 more than doubled from its low in March 2009 after Bernanke signaled in August 2010 the central bank would embark on a second round of asset purchases, known as quantitative easing, to boost the economy.

The index declined as much as 19 percent from its 2011 high in April through October last year as the program ended and concerns European leaders would fail to tame the region’s debt crisis escalated. It has since rebounded 19 percent.

Gross domestic product in the euro region will shrink by 0.2 percent this year, the median estimate in a survey of 21 economists surveyed by Bloomberg. The diverging outlooks are reducing lockstep price moves. The so-called 30-day correlation coefficient between the euro and S&P 500 fell 27 percent to 0.66 after reaching a record 0.91 in November.

Correlation Weakens

Speculation about whether European leaders would succeed in containing the credit crisis sent equity, currency and commodity markets up and down in unison last year. The relationship between U.S. stocks and the euro weakened after American unemployment fell to 8.5 percent from 9 percent and business activity as measured by the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index expanded at the fastest pace in seven months.

“A lot of people dismissed the original data in the fall as being backward looking,” Paul Zemsky, the New York-based head of asset allocation for ING Investment Management, said in a telephone interview. His firm oversees $550 billion. “But when you started seeing jobless claims going down, it looked more and more like the U.S. had shrugged off a lot of the European contagion.”

Rallying stocks have done little to entice investors. Mutual funds that invest in U.S. equities posted $753 million in inflows for the week ending Jan. 11 after $7.1 billion in outflows during the first week of the year, Investment Company Institute data show. Customers pulled about $63 billion for the final three months of 2011, the data show.

Election Years

The S&P 500 has gained an average 6.1 percent during presidential election years, compared with 4.4 percent in the years that follow, according to Bloomberg data going back to 1952. The index has posted a positive return for the last seven months of those years 87 percent of the time, data from the Stock Trader’s Almanac show.

“Committed bears have to pull in their claws a little,” according to Brian Barish, who helps oversee about $7 billion as Denver-based president of Cambiar Investors LLC. “On the more bullish side, corporate earnings continue to be very good and stocks in a lot of areas are quite undemanding in terms of their valuations,” Barish said in a Jan. 17 phone interview. “We could have a good year.”

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