An Assessment Exercise

Most humans tend to measure progress at regular intervals, typically demarcated by the calendar. In the investment world, quarterly data usually rank near the top in terms of qualifying performance, although monthly statistics have most likely supplanted them as most favored. The U.S. equity markets are off to their best quarterly start in over a decade and the current bull market is celebrating a three-year anniversary. Therefore, an overview of the cumulative gains is instructive in depicting not only how broad-based the advance has been, but just how far asset markets have come. Given the proliferation of ETFs and other investible products, I will use exchange-traded proxies to illustrate returns.

Since the turmoil that sent markets careening in late 2008 was driven by a global financial crisis, it should come as no surprise that the Financial Select Sector Fund (XLF) was a top performer from the March 2009 lows. Since the beginning of the bull market, an investment in XLF with dividends reinvested has scored an overall gain of 170%. What I find most fascinating about the rally in financial shares is that it all occurred within a 13-month time period. Since the April 2010 highs, XLF has actually traded lower. The index double-topped in February 2011, and is once again pushing up toward the former highs around $17. In fact, the recent rally has taken shares back to levels last seen 10 quarters ago! For those in the "what have you done for me lately" camp, the answer is "a whole lotta nothing."...723 more words left in this article. To read them, just click below and try Real Money FREE for 14 days.

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