Cantillon: Record rallies, but worries inevitably remain

US markets have reached new peaks and European investor confidence has surged. What next?

A screen over the trading floor displays the final tally for the S&P 500 at the New York Stock Exchange this week. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

A screen over the trading floor displays the final tally for the S&P 500 at the New York Stock Exchange this week. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

 

Two words have the capacity to both make equity investors very happy and leave market-watchers fretting about the prospects of an imminent slump. They are “record rally”. The drag of Apple’s plunging stock notwithstanding, a record rally is what has just taken place on the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index. It touched new highs this week, exceeding the previous record high of October 2007. For equity investors in the US market, the losses of the recession – and there were more than $10 trillion worth of losses – have been left behind.

As ever, analysts are now split between the bulls who point to spiralling corporate profits and say the rally has more left to run, and the bears who point to the interventions of the Federal Reserve in the US economy and say that their stimulus actions foster a positive mood that is little more than an illusion.

In Europe, investor confidence has jumped. The first quarter of 2013 was the third consecutive quarter of gains, while in Britain, the FTSE 100 has just completed 10 consecutive months of gains – only the second time it has ever done so. Yet the full-steam-ahead start to the year in January had some wondering when the market might start to cool off.

European stocks were little changed last week, as uncertainty about Brussels’ handling of the Cypriot crisis and political deadlock in Italy prevented anyone from getting carried away.

In Ireland, the Iseq bounced 16.5 per cent in the first quarter, outperforming the FTSE, which is up 8.7 per cent, and the EuroStoxx 600, which is running 5 per cent higher. It’s hard to argue that the fortunes of the Iseq bear much if any relationship to trends in the Irish economy, given the index is dominated by a handful of stocks with international footprints. But in any case, the Iseq, unlike the SandP 500, still has far to travel. At a closing value of 3,958 on Thursday, the index is still nowhere near the 10,000-plus peak of February 2007 – back when we still thought we had a banking system that was acting properly.