There were several driving forces affecting market conditions in year 2012. The year opened on a very strong start. In fact much of the overall market gain in 2012 occurred in the first six weeks of 2012. The rest of the year could best be characterized as one finger nail biting financial crisis followed by another, with a measure of election year political uncertainty thrown in for good measure.
The first crisis was the deteriorating economic conditions in Europe and the inability of governmental policy-makers to develop a constructive program to address it. While never really resolved over the course of the year, it was pushed off center stage by our own home grown financial crisis in the United States that came to be known as the fiscal cliff, and similar to their European counterparts, the inability of our own government political leaders to develop a constructive resolution. In each of these crises some sort of gerrymandering solution was developed; but the underlying problems remain not addressed with sustainable policies. The uncertainty of these circumstances created of great deal of volatility in the investment markets. In each case heightened tension increased the fear level of the markets and caused consequent drops in the markets. In each case, as well, the fears gave way to relief rallies in the markets as some policy was cobbled together to at least temporarily address the issues.
While the markets have started the year strongly, it is inevitable that will see these crises reemerge in 2013. In fact, it is highly likely that we will see a return to the same sort of volatility we experienced in 2012. The United States government has already reached the debt limit allowed by law, and while an agreement was reached with respect to taxes, the only agreement with respect to the mandatory budget cuts, known as sequestration, was to defer them for two months. This means that by March we will see the political and economic tensions again escalate, and market fears and uncertainty increase.
The issues at hand are very significant and marginalizing them into just another economic crisis would be poor judgment. The potential consequences mean there is there is not really no one safe harbor. Cash or bonds, the traditional conservative investments have to also be considered as at risk. Considering cash, in US dollar form, to be conservative would be to not recognize the link between the guarantor of the US dollar, the U.S. government, and the intractable financial problems that have brought it to the financial cliff, or are pushing it to have to continually increase its allowable debt ceiling. Bonds are also at risk as interest rates begin to rise from an unsustainable low interest rate environment, bond values, especially those long-term in nature, will decline in value. Indeed, as the markets have started 2013 strongly, many bonds have declined in value because of interest rate pressures.
One thing that seems to be fairly certain is that crises do resolve themselves, one way, or another. At this point we can only speculate on how that will occur. The worst case scenario would be a total global financial collapse and an ongoing subsequent global depression. While this cannot be dismissed as an impossible event, I see the probability of this as being extremely small. There is a great deal of potential economic vigor and potential growth. At present the main problem is the huge overhang of legacy debt. This is putting a damper on economic expansion and its consequent investment potential. Over-indebtedness is always dealt with by some sort of restructuring. That is what I would expect as a resolution in this case as well. What that restructuring will look like remains to be seen. However, as this process unfolds, we will see the economic vigor and investment potential be released. My take is that 2013 will be a pivotal year in beginning that resolution process. While I expect to see heightened volatility, I also expect to see the investment markets becoming more and more attractive as the year unfolds. As the year unfolds, I will be trying to steer a balanced course between the volatility and the potential longer term opportunities through maintaining well diversified portfolios.