Rearview mirror would say yes, but it's rarely right.

As the year draws to a close, it appears that investors will look back on 2004 as a forgettable one in terms of equity performance-the epitome of the "low-return environment" that forecasters have been warning everyone about.

Yet not too many people seem shocked by the chilly stock market. Investors, like anyone else, can deal with only so much uncertainty. Take a year that's dominated by war, terrorism, a bitterly contested presidential campaign, soaring fuel costs and concerns about the general state of the economy, and it should be no wonder that investors are going into hibernation.

They also note, however, that the cautious mood has overshadowed some promising signs that the investment environment could perk up, albeit not dramatically, in 2005.

"The current preoccupation is on all the risks and not all the opportunities," says Ernie Ankrim, chief investment strategist with the Russell Investment Group.

Ankrim describes the dominant mood on Wall Street these days as "vowel concern"-an a-e-i-o-u list of factors consisting of anxiety, elections, interest rates, oil and "uncertainty regarding all these things."

The result was a lackluster investment year, in which the only clear winner from a returns point of view was the energy sector-which gained more than 26% as of November 5.

The S&P 500, meanwhile, was up only 4.88% for the same period.

Although small- and mid-caps did outpace the large-cap sector, the gains were modest in all areas. The Russell 2000 Index was up 5.75% as of Oct. 29, while the Russell Midcap Index was up 8.69% and the Russell 1000 Index up 3.10%.

In other words, after you take into account management fees and other costs, investors are for the most part looking at slim gains, if any, when the books are closed for 2004.

The biggest thing investors have been looking for in 2004 is safety, says Andrew Clark, senior research analyst with Lipper.

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