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After European deal, investors brace for big moves

By Bernard Condon

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 11 2011 8:53 p.m. MST

NEW YORK — Europe's fiscal pact may save the euro from collapse and stave off worldwide financial panic. But the concerns of many investors are more personal: Will it lift my flagging 401(k)?

The answer from the stock market on Friday was hopeful. As a summit of European leaders concluded with an agreement to deal with their debt crisis, the Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 1.7 percent, capping a second straight week of gains.

Then again, stocks have rallied after other summits — more than a dozen in two years — only to fall again. And the reaction from even the optimists isn't particularly reassuring.

Hank Smith, chief investment officer of Haverford Investments, says stocks could rise "sharply and quickly" — but only if there's more "good news" from Europe. And that assumes you agree that Friday's deal was good at all.

In that deal, all 17 countries that use the euro agreed to allow a central European authority to oversee their future budgets. They also agreed to automatic penalties if they spend too much.

But the deal won't help cut debt today, which in Italy, Greece and Spain has driven government borrowing costs close to levels considered unsustainable. All eyes are now on the European Central Bank, and whether it's willing to buy enough national bonds from those countries to keep interest rates down.

The frustration for investors is that Europe has drowned out a string of good news in the U.S. that should have moved stock prices higher. U.S. companies are making more money than ever, signs are growing the economy is recovering and stocks are cheap compared with earnings.

So far this year, investors have endured stomach-churning moves up and down in stocks. But in the end, not much has changed.

The S&P 500 closed Friday at 1,255; it started the year at 1,258. The Dow Jones industrial average, thanks to a 33 percent rise in IBM, has performed a little better — up 5 percent.

Jim Russell, equity strategist at US Bank Wealth Management, is befuddled.

"Stocks are bad — sell them," he says, mocking the prevailing attitude in the markets. "It doesn't matter if you blow out earnings."

Russell is hoping that Europe's latest deal means U.S. investors will forget about the region for a while, focus on the fact that big U.S. companies have increased profits by double-digit percentages for 10 consecutive quarters — and maybe even start buying again.

But the only thing he's convinced is sure to come is more wild stock moves.

Since August, S&P 500 stocks have gyrated by 1.7 percent a day, more than twice the average for the index over two decades. The Dow average of blue chip stocks has seen similar volatility.

The culprit: Europe.

Early last month, the Dow plunged 389 points one day on news that squabbling Greek politicians might not be able to push through needed reforms. A few days later, the Italian Senate passed a new austerity budget and the Dow rose 260 points. Then it dropped 326 points over two days on fears that U.S. banks had bet too heavily on Europe continuing to pay its bills and on news of a sudden spike in Italian borrowing costs. Then, another reversal. Six central banks announced they would make it easier for European lenders to borrow themselves, and the Dow jumped 490 points.

In addition to tighter controls on spending, Europe's new "fiscal compact" calls for the launch of a permanent eurozone bailout fund in 2012, a year ahead of schedule. The deal also will send 200 billion euros ($267.41 billion) to the International Monetary Fund, which controls another emergency fund for countries in crisis.

Jeffrey Sica of Sica Wealth Management thinks the pact is inadequate, and stocks could fall 15 percent once investors wake up to that fact. He doesn't think the European Central Bank will buy enough bonds to keep borrowing costs down.

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