The stock market ended a tumultuous year right where it started.
In the final tally, despite big climbs and falls, unexpected blows and surprising triumphs, all the hullabaloo proved for naught. On Friday, the Standard & Poor's 500 index closed at 1,257.60. That's exactly 0.04 point below where it started the year.
"If you fell asleep January 1  and woke up today, you'd think nothing had happened," says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank. "But it's been up and down all year. It's been crazy."
It was a year when US companies were supposed to run out of ways to make big profits. But they didn't, and in fact generated more than ever. It was a year when the US lost its prized triple-A credit rating, which should have spooked buyers of its bonds. Instead investors bought more of them and made Treasuries one of the best bets of 2011. It was a year when stocks caught fire, then collapsed to near bear-market lows.
Among stocks, there were some surprising winners. Scaredy-cat investors who bought the most conservative and dullest of stocks — utilities — gained 15 per cent this year, the biggest price rise of the ten industry sectors in the S&P 500. Other winning groups were consumer staples, up 11 per cent, and health care companies, ten per cent.
Other market curiosities:
Bad year, great quarter: Despite disappointing returns in 2011, the last three months of the year were impressive, which could bode well for the new year. The S&P 500 rose 11 per cent. The Dow Jones industrial average, comprising 30 big stocks, climbed 1,344 points, or 12 per cent. That was the largest quarterly point gain in its history. The Dow closed up 5.5 per cent for the year.
Best of the bad: US stocks delivered little last year, but other markets did even worse, including ones in fast-growing economies. Brazil's Bovespa index fell 18 per cent in 2011. Hong Kong's Hang Seng dropped 20 per cent. In Europe, many of the biggest markets ended down in 2011. Britain's FTSE 100 lost 5.6 per cent, Germany's DAX 14.7 per cent.
Buy American is back: A broad index of the Treasury market gained 9.6 per cent, despite the fact that the US government is now slightly less likely to repay its debt, at least according to Standard & Poor's. In August, the rating agency stripped the US of its triple-A rating, citing mounting US debt and political squabbling over what to do about it.
For stock investors, 2011 wasn't supposed to end this way. At the start of the year, the Great Recession was officially 1+ years behind us and the recovery was finally gaining momentum. The economy added an average of more than 200,000 jobs a month in February, March and April. And US companies kept reporting big jumps in profits, defying naysayers.