By Ken Sweet
NEW YORK: The year 2013 was great for the average investor, but few market strategists believe that 2014 will be anywhere near as good. The simple strategy of buying U.S. stocks, selling bonds and staying out of international markets isn’t going to work as well as it has, they say.
Some of Wall Street’s biggest money managers have come up with a few resolutions to help your retirement portfolio have a good year:
• Curb your expectations
Few investors expected 2013 to be as big as it was. The S&P 500 index was up 32 percent for the year, assuming reinvested dividends, its best year since 1997.
On average, market strategists expect 2014 to be somewhat tame. Most are looking for the S&P 500 to rise to 1,850 to 1,900, a gain of just 2 to 4 percent.
• Keep your eye on valuation
Investors bid up stock prices to all-time highs in 2013 despite a mediocre economy and corporate profits that were less than spectacular.
At the beginning of the year, the price-to-earnings ratio on the S&P 500 was 13.5, meaning investors were paying roughly $13.50 for every $1 of earnings in the S&P 500. Now the S&P 500’s P-E ratio is around 16.7.
The historical average is 14.5, so it is noticeably higher than it was a year ago.
Investors have high expectations for corporate profits next year, based on the prices they are paying.
“It’s hard to believe that this market can go much higher from here without some corporate earnings growth,” said Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Nuveen Asset Management.
Profit margins are already at record highs, and corporations spent most of 2013 increasing their earnings by cutting costs or using financial engineering tools such as buying back their own stock.
Earnings at companies in the S&P 500 grew at an 11 percent rate in 2013. The consensus among market strategists is that profit growth will slow to around 8 percent in 2014.
However, if the U.S. economy continues to improve, and corporate profit margins expand, it could justify the prices investors have been paying for stocks.
• Don’t get caught up in euphoria
A large number of investors have remained on the sidelines for this five-year bull market. Since the market bottomed in March 2009, investors pulled $430 billion out of stock funds, according to data from Lipper, while putting nearly $1 trillion into bond funds.
Professional market watchers are concerned that many individual investors, trying to play a game of catch-up, might rush into the market with a vengeance next year. The surge of money could cause stocks to jump if investors ignore warnings that the market is getting overvalued.
Wall Street calls this phenomenon a “melt-up.” A “melt-up” could lead to a “melt-down,” as happened in the late 1990s.
“I fear people who sat out 2013 will jump in too fast next year and get burned,” said Richard Madigan, chief investment officer for JPMorgan Private Bank.
Which leads us to:
• Don’t panic, either
Stocks cannot go higher all the time. Bearish investors have been saying for months that stocks are due for a pullback in the near future.
• Cut your exposure to bonds
Fixed-income investors had a tough year in 2013. The Barclays Aggregate bond index, a broad composite of thousands of bonds, fell 2 percent. Investors in long-term bonds were hit even harder, losing 15 percent of their money since the beginning of the year, according to comparable bond indexes.
The new year is not looking good for bond investors, either. Instead, investors should reorganize their portfolio to focus more on bonds that mature in relatively short periods of time.