Anniversary of market rebound gives opportunity for reflection

The Dow Jones Industrials and the Standard & Poor's 500 both bottomed on March 9, 2009. It is incredible to think that 12 months ago, the S&P 500 stood at 672 and now is at 1,139, a 69% increase, the DOW Jones Industrials stood at 6,547 and are now at 10,550 (a 61% increase) and the FTSE 100 stood at 3,532, having increased 58% to today's 5,584. You could have picked up great stocks like Google (GOOG) for $289 (now $558), Caterpillar (CAT) for $23 (now $59), Apple (AAPL) for $83 (now $219), BP (BP.) for £4.29 (now £6.35) and HSBC (HSBA) for £3.04 (now £6.98). Despite having strong balance sheets, good profitability and great in-market positions these stocks were swept up in the negative spiral precipitated by the near collapse of the financial system, as exemplified by the demise of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. It really was the "sale of the century" for those brave enough to take a contrarian position back in the dark days of early 2009. For investors in more specialist vehicles such as commodity related stocks or emerging markets, returns in 2009 have been even more spectacular. For "value" investors, the signs of an oversold market were plain to see - forward price/earnings ration's close to the single digits for the DOW and FTSE, a yield on the FTSE of close to 5% and many quality companies close to cash value. But the fear gripping the market was such that with the exception of investors like Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (who invested too early in cases such as Goldman Sachs despite highly favourable terms), many chose to stay on the sidelines and waited for a signal of a turn. The volatility even frightened me and despite buying heavily back in March 2009, I chose to take quick profits rather than hold with a hope of higher returns.

So now in March 2010, the investment case is less certain. It may seem a crazy thing to say, but despite all the positive signals that the U.S. economy is slowly coming out of a painful recession, the risks of buying the market are higher than back 12 months ago. Whereas at the peak of the panic, you could have bought almost anything with a reasonable balance sheet, the market is much more tricky now with the big gains in the second half of 2009. Contrarian Investor UK is inclined to stay on the side lines for a time now and let the established positions run. The risk of a correction (albeit modest) is very much concerning me. Bad news has been largely discounted by the market during 2010, but any significant set back in U.S. or European recovery may well be a catalyst for profit taking and volumes are already so low in the U.S. that it suggests that the major players are not active in the market and waiting for a better investing opportunity.