(Bloomberg News) Stock swings that reached twice the five-decade average left the Standard & Poor's 500 Index with the smallest price change in 41 years and utilities, soapmakers and health-care providers at the highest valuations since 2008.
The S&P 500 rose 3.7 percent last week, sending the measure to a gain of 0.6 percent for the year. The last time it moved less on an annual basis was in 1970, when it fell 0.1 percent. Within the gauge, companies least tied to economic growth, such as Biogen Idec Inc. and Hershey Co., increased an average 15.7 percent including dividends, returning 8.2 times more than the index after adjusting for historical price swings. That's the biggest gap since at least 1989.
Bears say that the 2011 performance means there are even fewer stocks worth buying after valuations for defensive shares increased 7.4 percent. With the U.S. showing more signs of growth, bulls say the divergence between those shares and companies most dependent on the economy preceded market-wide rallies in 2001, 2007 and 2009.
"The combination of a very crowded trade and a market that's very cheap with a lot of doubters suggests to me the place to put funds is in the market overall," Andrew Slimmon, the Chicago-based managing director of global investment solutions at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC, which has $1.7 trillion in client assets, said in a phone interview Dec. 19.
While the S&P 500 barely moved on a year-to-date basis, 2011 was one of the most volatile years on record. Eighty-five companies fell 20 percent or more, compared with 11 in 2010 and 15 in 2009. First Solar Inc. of Tempe, Arizona, posted the biggest declines in the gauge, falling 73 percent, and Alpha Natural Resources Inc. in Bristol, Virginia, tumbled 65 percent.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average alternated between gains and losses of more than 400 points on four days for the first time ever in August. Daily share swings in the S&P 500 averaged 2.2 percent that month, the most for any August since 1932, Bloomberg data show. The index moved 1.3 percent a day since April, compared with 50-year average of 0.6 percent before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in 2008.
After rising 8.4 percent to start 2011 and reaching an almost three-year high of 1,363.61 on April 29, the S&P 500 fell as much as 19 percent to 1,099.23 on Oct. 3 as Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama struggled over deficit cuts and Europe was forced to bail out Greece.
The measure has trimmed its decline since April to 7.2 percent as U.S. manufacturing and retail sales rebounded and the unemployment rate fell to 8.6 percent in November from 9.2 percent in June. The S&P 500 erased its loss for 2011 last week. Futures on the index slipped less than 0.1 percent to 1,260.2 at 6:41 a.m. in New York today.