CHICAGO (MCT) --2013 was the best year for the stock market since 1997 and a reminder of the sweet time at the end of the 1990s when 30 percent annual gains seemed easy and regular Americans presumed themselves expert investors. But while the average stock mutual fund in 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts climbed an unusual 33 percent, the year was devoid of the giddy responses from that earlier era.
A decade ago, investors were stunned by the tech wreck of 2000 and its 49 percent market plunge.
Today, investors may be enjoying the sight of their savings healing as the Standard & Poor's 500 climbed 30 percent in 2013. But they remain leery.
As 2014 dawns, many wonder how stocks can remain so strong while unemployment is so high. And they are still digesting the effect of the financial crisis, with its cruel reality of a market that suddenly turned villainous and devastated 57 percent of the average person's savings.
Here are some lessons from last year to help guide investors going forward:
• Even the sickest stock markets eventually heal. During the darkest days of early 2009, few investors would have imagined recovering from the market's traumas. But the broad stock market of large and small stocks, known as the Wilshire 5000, has climbed about 187 percent since then and delivered about $15.4 trillion in wealth -- $5.4 trillion of it in 2013. As a result, the stock market is now about 24 percent ahead of where it was before it turned cruel in 2007.
The gains have been so great in 2013, analysts are debating whether stocks have become too pricey and, therefore, vulnerable. Yet there has been no surge comparable to the end of the 1990s, when stocks climbed more than 20 percent a year for five years straight.
Morningstar analyst Matthew Coffina said the stock market is selling at a 2 percent premium to its fair value now, unlike the late 1990s, "when stock valuations had become completely disconnected from reality."
Back then, he said, it made sense to cut back on stocks and store cash. But now, with the global economy improving and stocks not sharply overpriced, he said trying to trade in and out of the stock market would probably be folly.
Often after a year as strong as 2013, another up year is coming. But that's wrong about one-third of the time.
• Keep an eye on profits. Stocks will turn down if companies start disappointing, and the latest report from FactSet suggests some vulnerability. With fourth-quarter earnings reporting season a couple of weeks away, FactSet said the highest percentage of large companies on record has been warning that analysts are expecting more from them than they are likely to deliver.
• Bonds aren't always safe. Risk-averse people will be surprised when they start opening brokerage statements from 2013 and see losses in bonds for the first time since 1999. Furthermore, losses are likely to persist in 2014, since analysts estimate 10-year Treasury yields may hit 4 percent after closing 2013 about 3 percent.
Although people ran to the safety of bonds in the financial crisis, conditions are now just the opposite. A horrible economy and Federal Reserve stimulus are no longer causing interest rates to fall. Rather, the Fed has announced a reduction in stimulus, and the economy is on the mend. The result: Interest rates are climbing. Whenever interest rates start climbing, bonds or bond mutual funds are hit by losses. If you plan to hold a government bond until it matures, you won't notice the effect. But if you plan to take money out of a bond fund, you will feel it.
According to Lipper, the average mutual fund that invests in safe Treasury bonds has lost about 7 percent for the year.
• Beware of doomsayers. After the terrifying losses in the stock market during the financial crisis, people were easy targets for doomsayers predicting the collapse of the U.S. and eurozone. It didn't help that U.S. politicians ignited worry as they played politics with the nation's debt ceiling, "fiscal cliff" and sequestration. 2013 was a year that showed that politicians and central bankers eventually rally and prevent disaster.
But regular people didn't see relief coming. Many bought gold thinking disaster was imminent and only gold would be safe. 2013 taught a painful lesson: Even safe investments are not safe if you buy them at a ridiculous price inflated by hype. So, people who bought gold close to $1,900 an ounce now have an investment worth about $1,200 an ounce.
Gold dropped 28 percent in 2013, as there were no signs of inflation and the Federal Reserve suggested it was going to start pulling back on the stimulus. Gold may become popular again if inflation becomes a threat, but now many analysts are predicting that the long cycle that propelled gold prices higher for 12 years is over.
• There's no place like home. Financial advisers the past few years have nagged Americans to leave the familiarity of their backyards and give the world a chance to grow their money. The argument has been that the U.S. had a mature economy, and great potential growth would come from developing areas in Asia and Latin America.
But, while there is truth in the emerging-market growth story in the long run, 2013 was not such a year.
Rather, the U.S. was the part of the world that investors most trusted as it seemed ahead of the rest of the world in recovering from the strains of the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Europe surprised investors by moving out of recession, and the average European stock fund gained 26 percent. Likewise, Japan is making headway with reforms, and the average fund invested in stocks there gained 26 percent. Still, neither was a match for the 33 percent gain averaged by U.S. stock funds tracked by Lipper.
While developed markets produced sizable gains, emerging markets fell far short of the narrative that has been popular the past few years. The developing areas of Latin America and Asia remain highly dependent on customers and investment from the U.S. and Europe. And as the Federal Reserve hinted that it was going to start cutting back on stimulus, investors shunned emerging markets.
While analysts see potential in European and Japanese stocks for 2014, they question whether investors will favor emerging markets while the Fed continues to pull away stimulus.
• Dividends matter, but sometimes they don't. Investors started the year focused on conservative stock investments with good dividends for income, but by spring they soured on sectors such as utilities, real estate investment trusts and telecommunications. Utilities, for example, fell about 13 percent, although as a group they ended the year up about 8 percent.
The disenchantment with the dividend-paying sectors is common at times when investors are expecting interest rates on bonds to rise. Cautious investors eventually turn to safe government bonds, instead of dividend-paying stocks for income. Investors, aware of the coming trend, shifted money early in mid-2013.
• Diversification and buy-and-hold still work. While 2013 taught investors that they could buy virtually any type of U.S. stock fund and easily pocket great gains, 2008 taught the value of having bonds as shock absorbers in downturns. So analysts are warning investors in 2014 to keep their mixtures of stocks and bonds.
A review of 2008 shows why: In 2008, the stock market lost 37 percent. But people who had half their money in the stock market and half in long-term U.S. government bonds lost just 9.7 percent.