Fiscal and monetary largesse overcame declining income and revenue estimates and pushed equity markets higher in April, starting with an 11.3% gain for the S&P 500 Index for the week ending 4/8/20. This was the highest weekly gain for the Index since 1974. The market continued a gentle rise to month end, even as earnings disappointments were more frequent than usual.
Investors got a lesson in viral economics during the first quarter of 2020. A novel coronavirus (COVID-19) went unnoticed by most of the world as we celebrated the western new year. But as the Chinese (lunar) new year approached, disruptions in supply chains in China started to affect some stocks. Still, U.S. equities continued to rise, with the price for the S&P 500 Index peaking at a record high close of 3386.15 on February 19, a healthy +4.8% increase from the end of 2019.
U.S. equities continued climbing a wall of worry to produce record highs in Q4. Despite stumbling during the first two days of October, the S&P 500 Index reached new highs 22 times during the quarter, including 9 records in the final 13 trading days of the year. The S&P 500 Index rose +9.07% in Q4 and finished 2019 with a stellar total return of +31.49%, its strongest yearly performance since 2013.
After sprinting ahead in the first half of the year, ongoing trade frictions, political turmoil, monetary policy uncertainty, and slowing global growth weighed on small-cap stocks in Q3. The Russell 2000 Index pulled back -2.40% for the quarter, returning +14.18% for the year, lagging large-cap stocks for both periods. Earnings growth from the second quarter was negative again for small-caps. This reflection of decelerating economic activity prompted a strong rotation into value stocks in September. Although the Russell 2000 Value Index outperformed the Russell 2000 Growth Index for the quarter, the Russell 2000 Growth Index remains ahead year to date.
U.S. equity markets were positive in Q2 while building upon the impressive returns from Q1. This resulted in the S&P 500 Index experiencing the best first half of the year since 1997. While small-caps outperformed large-caps in the first quarter, the reverse was true in the second quarter. Yet whether large or small, returns were quite robust: The S&P 500 Index returned +18.54% for the first half of the year while the Russell 2000 Index returned +16.98%. June was particularly strong; in fact it was the strongest June since 1955, as measured by the S&P 500 Index.
The S&P 500 Index opened 2019 with its best January performance since 1987 and continued moving higher in February and March finishing the quarter up +13.65%. This also proved to be the Index’s strongest calendar quarter since Q3 2009 and its best Q1 since 1998. The Russell 2000 Index delivered an even higher double-digit return of +14.58% for the quarter. The strong performance that occurred during the first half of the quarter was a continuation from the Christmas bounce, with equities moving broadly higher despite earnings estimates trending lower.