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A good time to reassess strategy

August 29, 2009|TOM PETRUNO

With the end of summer drawing near, investors find themselves in far better shape than they probably dared to imagine just a few months ago.

So much better, in fact, that many people have a nagging suspicion this is all some kind of Wall Street mirage that could vanish in no time.

Putting those understandable fears aside for a moment, let's count up just how much repair has been done to portfolios battered by the markets' crash of last fall and winter.

Most major U.S. stock indexes have rebounded more than 50% from their lows in March, a feat few market pros figured was achievable in such a short span.

The benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index on Thursday hit its highest level since Oct. 6 before edging slightly lower on Friday to close at 1,028.93. It's up 52% from its 12-year low on March 9.

Smaller stocks have posted headier gains than blue-chip issues. The Russell 2,000 small-stock index has rocketed almost 69% from its March low.

The story has been much the same or better in most foreign markets over the last six months, and the weakened dollar has pumped up foreign returns for U.S. investors.

Shares of one of the largest foreign stock funds, Dodge & Cox International, have soared 90% from their March low.

Money also has poured into other beaten-down assets, including junk corporate bonds and municipal bonds.

If you haven't tallied up your own portfolio in a while, this would be a good time. It should be a pleasant exercise, unless you've had most of your money in the few investments that have been losers this year -- Treasury bonds, for instance, which have lost value as investors have shifted to riskier plays.

What has underpinned markets' revival, of course, is the belief that the recession has bottomed and that some kind of recovery is imminent.

Economic data for the last two months have mostly supported that idea. Yet many investors are dubious, because what they see around them is an economy still plagued by job losses, rising mortgage defaults, failing banks and "for lease" signs on nearly every mini-mall and office building.

"Most people have been captivated by the stock market's run-up, but they don't believe it's real" because of how the economy feels to them, says Meloni Hallock, head of Acacia Wealth Advisors, a Beverly Hills firm that manages $600 million for its clients.

The bulls' argument is that the market is doing its job of looking ahead. The bearish case is that the rebound in stocks and other assets already is far ahead of what the economy can deliver in the near future, especially given how many consumers are either unable or unwilling to ramp up their spending.

Now for some real fear-mongering: Wall Street's biggest pessimists see the stock market's surge since March as a replay of the bounce that followed the crash of 1929.

The Dow Jones industrial average hit its initial low of 198.69 on Nov. 13, 1929, then rallied 48% in the five months that followed before crumbling anew as the economy worsened. The market's final bottom of the Depression didn't occur until July 8, 1932, with the Dow at a mere 41.22.

With the current rally nearing its six-month anniversary (Sept. 9), and the Dow up 46% from the March low, the bears see a day of reckoning soon.

If you need an excuse to sell stocks, there are plenty (although that's almost always the case).

The Chinese stock market, which turned up before most others early this year, has crested on fears that Beijing will rein in bank lending and slow the economy. The Shanghai market index has slumped nearly 18% since Aug. 4.

On Wall Street, a closely followed gauge of market sentiment is warning that investors have become complacent: The latest weekly Investors Intelligence survey of 130 investment newsletters found that just 19.8% are bearish, the lowest total since October 2007 -- the peak of the last bull market.

The 46-year-old survey often has been a good contrarian indicator, meaning that when sentiment reaches extremes, the market often contradicts the majority view.

But to many analysts, the most worrisome market trend of late has been the wild trading in shares of a handful of financial firms whose futures are crapshoots at best.

Traders have flooded into shares of American International Group, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and Citigroup Inc. this month. All four have been beneficiaries of federal bailouts since last fall, leaving Uncle Sam either in control or a major shareholder.

So why should Freddie Mac's stock price be up 287% in August, to $2.40 on Friday? The short answer is, because speculators have turned it into a "momentum" play that is feeding on itself.

Wall Street bears point to the massive August trading volume in these four stocks as the kind of silliness that always accompanies a market peak.

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