With just a few days before we turn the page to 2015, it’s time to take look back at 2014 and highlight some of the big financial stories and trends of the year. Economic Growth: The year started with weakness, due to unusually cold weather across the nation. The economy actually contracted by annualized pace of 2.1 percent in the first three months of the year, before recovering to grow by 4.6 percent in the second quarter and by a surprisingly strong 5 percent annualized pace in the third. The fourth quarter probably expanded by 2.5 to 3 percent, though the government will not release its first estimate of growth until January 30th. For the year, the economy likely grew by two and a half percent, which is a small improvement from the previous few years, though still below the long-term average of 3.3 percent.
Labor Market: 2014 was the year of the job. Through November, the year was on pace to be the best year for job creation since 1999, with the economy adding just over 2.6 million total payroll jobs. The unemployment rate stands at 5.8 percent, down from 6.7 percent at the end of last year; and the number of people out of work for more than six months has dropped from 3.9 million last December, to 2.8 million, the lowest level for long-term unemployed since January 2009. While 2.8 million is still very high, it is down from over 6 million from a peak in early 2010.
Federal Reserve and the Bernanke Hand-Off to Yellen: The transition from the Ben Bernanke era to the Janet Yellen regime was mostly smooth. Oh sure, there was the inevitable woops moment at her first press conference back in March, when the newly-anointed Fed Chair let it slip out that the Fed would raise rates “something on the order of around six months” after the central bank’s bond buying (aka “Quantitative Easing” or “QE”) ended. Those eight words threw financial markets into a temporary tailspin (reminiscent of 2013’s “Taper Tantrum,” which occurred after then-Chairman Ben Bernanke began discussing tapering bond purchases), as investors worried that the Fed would increase rates faster than expected.
As it turned out, Yellen’s Fed slowly unwound the central bank’s bond buying policy and announced its conclusion at the October FOMC meeting. Then, in its last policy meeting of the year, the Fed split the difference on the language it used to describe when it would increase short-term interest rates. The central bank “judges that it can be patient (emphasis mine) in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy,” but also added the new description of their stance was “consistent” with past assurances that rates would stay low for a “considerable time.” The last Fed meeting of the year and the subsequent Yellen press conference spurred the 2014 Santa Claus Rally.
Financial markets: The biggest market story of 2014 was the swift and steep near-50 percent plunge in crude prices. The catalyst for the drop was a combination of softening demand in China, Europe and Japan, combined with a surge in U.S. production. Because the price of oil determines about two-thirds of the price of a gallon of regular gas, drivers were delighted to enjoy the 38 percent dive from a high of $3.70 a gallon on April 8th, to $2.29 today.
Meanwhile, both the stock and bond markets performed far better than most analysts expected at the beginning of the year. While there were periodic ups and downs, investors were spared a full-blown stock market correction, defined a fall of at least 10 percent. (It may have felt like a correction in October, but that was a 7.3 percent drop.) As of this writing (I’ll update this post after the close on December 31), the S&P 500 is up 13 percent and the bond market has also seen smart gains, with US Treasuries returning 5.6 percent this year, on track for the best performance since 2011, after losing 3.4 percent last year, according to the Bloomberg U.S. Treasury Bond Index.
Of course, in any given year, there are winners and losers (in market lingo, this is sometimes called “divergence in performance.”) In 2014, the laggards in the equity universe were US small caps (loosely defined has companies having a market value less than $1 billion); and a handful of emerging stock markets. Before you throw in the towel on these assets, its good to remember that just because 2014 was a U.S., big-cap world, does not mean that 2015 will see a repeat performance. (There’s a reason why every investment prospectus features the warning “Past performance is not indicative of future results.”) In fact, small caps outperformed the broader market from the bear-market bottom of March 2009 through 2013. Think of 2014 as a bit of give back on that outperformance.
U.S. Government Backs Off: Here’s a nice change from 2013: this past year had no Congressional stand-offs! That’s right, no Fiscal Cliff, no Sequestration, no government shut down and no fight over the debt ceiling.
Geopolitical Issues Heat Up: 2014 was filled with a series of scary geopolitical events: unrest in Ukraine; Russian annexation of Crimea; an outbreak of violence between Israel-Hamas; the rise of ISIS; pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong; and an outbreak of Ebola. Economists call these events “exogenous,” which means coming from outside. The practitioners of the dismal science hate exogenous events, because they are impossible to predict. Investors also detest these events, because they often can have a significant negative effect on prices.
MARKETS: Holiday shortened weeks are usually kind to investors and last week did not disappoint. If history is any guide, the bulls are likely to remain in control next week too. During the last five trading sessions of December and the first two of January, the Dow has gained an average of 1.7 per cent, according to the Stock Trader's Almanac (the data go back to 1896!)
- DJIA: 18,053, up 1.4% on week, up 8.9% YTD (best 5 days since 2011)
- S&P 500: 2088, up 0.9% on week, up 13% YTD (52nd record high of the year)
- NASDAQ: 4806, up 0.9% on week, up 15.1% YTD
- Russell 2000: 1215, up 1.5% on week, up 4.4% YTD
- 10-Year Treasury yield: 2.25% (from 2.18% a week ago)
- February Crude Oil: $54.73, down 4.2% on week
- February Gold: $1,195.30, down 0.04% on week
- AAA Nat'l average price for gallon of regular Gas: $2.29 (from $3.31 a year ago)
THE WEEK AHEAD:
10:30 Dallas Fed Manufacturing Activity
9:00 Case Shiller Home Price Index
10:00 Consumer Confidence
8:30 Weekly Jobless Claims
9:45 Chicago PMI
10:00 Pending Home Sales
Thurs 1/1: NEW YEAR’S DAY – GLOBAL MARKETS CLOSED
9:45 PMI Manufacturing
10:00 ISM Manufacturing
10:00 Construction Spending