(MoneyWatch) 2012 is deja vu all over again for investors, as Yogi Berra might say. A cycle of stock bullishness could be followed by fear of a global growth slowdown; panic; central bank action; and ultimately (and hopefully) recovery.
In 2010 and 2011, a stock market run-up in the beginning of the year was derailed by fears over slowing growth and the European debt crisis. In those two previous years, the downshift for equities coincided with the end or perceived end to Federal Reserve policies. This year, first quarter optimism (stocks were up 12 percent, the best first quarter since 1998) is once again fading, as the impact of the European Central Bank's actions is winding down and Fed action is unlikely until at least the June meeting.
This year's growth funk can be seen from Europe to China to the U.S. Just as the European economy attempts to recover from the Greek debt drama, new data showed Spanish bank borrowing from the ECB surged to new highs in March. Of course the banks had no choice, as skittish lenders demanded high yields to compensate them for the risk that lending to a Spanish bank might entail.
Spain is seen as the 2012 version of Greece, with the main difference being size. Spain is Europe's fourth largest economy and if it runs aground, the troika (the EU, the ECB and the IMF) can't simply write a check to contain the problem. As fears over Spain escalated, the Spanish stock market tumbled to a new three-year low, bringing it back to levels not seen since the worst part of the global recession.
China's softer-than-expected growth of 8.1 percent was the slowest rate of expansion in three years and prompted fears of a Chinese "hard landing" from its stellar growth levels of the past. Of course, much of this "slowdown" has been orchestrated by the Chinese government, as it tries to cool the once red-hot real estate market.
In the U.S., the much-feared "mid-cycle slowdown" started to gain traction after the disappointing jobs report. Last week, the Fed's Beige Book said the "economy continued to expand at a modest to moderate pace from mid-February thru late March," which could mean the economy is growing, but at too slow a pace to justify current stock prices.
It's just a couple of sour weeks, so no need to enter the panic phase yet. Still, stocks saw the biggest weekly decline of the year. The S&P 500 is now down 3.4 percent since April 2, when it closed near four-year highs. This week, financial company earnings will be in the spotlight, as Goldman, Citigroup, BofA and Morgan Stanley report results.
-- DJIA: 12,849, down 1.6% on week, up 5.2% on year (down 2.7% over the last two weeks)
-- S&P 500: 1,370, down 2% on week, up 9% on year (first back-to-back week loss since 11/11. Down 2.7%, over the last two weeks)
-- NASDAQ: 3,011, down 2.2%, up 15.6% on year (down 2.6% over the last two weeks)
-- May Crude Oil: $102.83 103.31, down 0.4% on week
-- June Gold: $1,660.20, up 1.9% on the week
-- AAA National Average Price for Gallon of Regular Gas: $3.90
THE WEEK AHEAD:
Citigroup, Charles Schwab, Gannett
8:30 Retail sales
8:30 Empire State Manufacturing index
10:00 Business inventories
10:00 Housing market index
IBM, Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Intel, Yahoo
8:30 Housing starts
9:15 Industrial production
American Express, eBay, Abbott Labs
7:00 Weekly mortgage applications
Microsoft, Travelers, Bank of America, DuPont, New York Times, Morgan Stanley
8:30 Weekly jobless claims
10:00 Existing home sales
10:00 Philadelphia Fed survey
10:00 Leading economic indicators
General Electric, McDonalds, Schlumberger