February 01, 2012
“Twenty-eleven saw disasters both natural and human. There were threats of European default, failures of political leadership, worries over recession, and the ever-present specter of staggering debt. All of these events contributed to one of the wildest years for stocks in recent memory. It seems likely that 2011 will be remembered not for the severity of its losses, which weren’t nearly as bad as one might think, but for its daily drama of extreme volatility”.
A few years ago, we wrote that markets resemble Tolstoy’s families: All the happy ones are alike, and all the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way. The past calendar year’s stock market results, which place it mostly, but not entirely, in the “unhappy” category, offer a striking example. One only has to compare it to recent years of poor performance to see its singularity. In 2008, stock markets across the globe cratered as part of a global financial crisis that saw once-mighty titans of Wall Street collapse.
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The crisis also had the effect of worsening both a correction in housing prices and a worldwide recession. (Of course, much of the globe’s current difficulties in capital markets and economies can be traced back to this event.) The crisis saw a widespread exit from stocks, with major indexes in the U.S. and elsewhere posting sizable double-digit losses for the year. Earlier in the decade, 2002 saw mostly negative results as the exploding Internet Bubble and the lingering effects of the events of 9/11 led many investors to sell equities. Results were mostly negative, but within a much larger range, depending on one’s exposure to Technology and related areas.
We suspect that, unlike those of 2002 and 2008, the stock market of 2011 will be remembered not for cataclysmic events or the severity of its losses, which weren’t nearly as bad as one might think, but for its daily drama of extreme volatility. The days between late April and the end of the year saw increasing numbers of investors opting to get out of equities, and stay out, which resulted in a large-scale capitulation that rivaled anything we have seen during other recent bearish periods, when results were far, far worse. This last point made the past year as fascinating as it was frustrating. Investors fled or avoided stocks for many reasons—because they lacked confidence in political leaders both here at home and abroad to deal effectively with the challenges of stimulating the economy and responsibly coping with enormous debt; because they couldn’t bear the barrage of headlines with their seemingly endless parade of bad news; and because they simply ran out of patience with the daily jumps and dives of a market struggling to make sense of it all.
Absent from this list is the state of the companies themselves. We would humbly suggest that the most relevant reasons why one would choose to invest in a business—its merits as a company, its prospects and the relationship these have to its stock price—were largely, if not wholly neglected through the market’s most tumultuous months. Again, this was unlike 2002, which for many Internet companies was an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment, and 2008, when the threat was systemic and fundamentals were, at least at the most tense moments, irrelevant. The disconnect between stock prices and fundamentals for many companies, including many small-caps, remains wide as we enter 2012. While this created no end of short-term disappointments for us—2011 being one of the most challenging years for The Royce Funds in our history—it has also provided ample seeding for what we hope will be a bountiful harvest in the years to come. Following a recap of 2011 performance, we will offer a more detailed explanation of our optimism below.
Perhaps the most notable thing about 2011 was how little returns shifted in the U.S. markets. High volatility was the order of the day through much of the year across most of the globe and was very much in evidence between August and the end of December. However, by the time the year ended, the major U.S. indexes posted returns that felt less like a bang than a whimper. After a solidly positive first half, the small-cap Russell 2000 Index came through the wild second half with a loss of 9.8%. For the same period, its large-cap counterparts, the Russell 1000 and S&P 500 Indexes, lost less, down 4.6% and 3.7%, respectively, while the more tech-laden Nasdaq Composite declined 6.1%.
These single-digit declines belie the tortuous road of the year’s last six months. During the third quarter, each of the aforementioned indexes suffered significant double-digit losses, with the Russell 2000 down 21.9%, the Russell 1000 falling 14.7%, the S&P 500 off 13.9% and the Nasdaq losing 12.9%. Fears of European defaults and the possibility of a double-dip recession in the U.S. were factors, though U.S. and European investors may well have been more motivated to sell based on their utter lack of confidence in the abilities of the developed world’s political leaders to meet the challenges of economic stagnation and staggering government debt.
When some progress seemed to be made on these fronts, share prices rebounded through much of the fourth quarter. The bull run was dominated by an October rally just as the third-quarter downturn was primarily driven by a disastrous August and September. Each major index finished the fourth quarter with double-digit gains. Small-caps led the way in this dynamic period, gaining 15.5%, compared to a gain of 11.8% for both the Russell 1000 and S&P 500 Indexes, and 7.9% for the Nasdaq. Yet after all the Sturm und Drang in 2011—of its second half in particular—here is where the four domestic indexes wound up for the calendar year: The Russell 2000 fell 4.2%, the Russell 1000 gained 1.5%, the S&P 500 climbed 2.1%, and the Nasdaq lost 1.8%. After a year of prices leaping and crashing, the U.S. stock markets did not move much at all. Were the bullish October and the less wildly volatile months of November and December positive signs that investors were beginning to pay less attention to headlines and more to company fundamentals? We would like to think so, but this remains an open question.
The ongoing possibility of government defaults in Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, as well as the resulting economic slowdown that gripped much of Europe, continued to weigh heavily on the minds of investors in the second half. This anxiety was reflected in the larger calendar-year losses for global, international and European indexes. The Russell Global ex-U.S. Small Cap Index finished the year down 18.7%, behind its large-cap sibling, the Russell Global ex-U.S. Large Cap Index, which declined 13.8%. Each enjoyed a modestly positive first half, up 0.8% and 4.1%, respectively, before succumbing to the same woes that afflicted the U.S. markets in the third quarter.