Still, the stock market will enter 2012 in a spot that wasn't too different from late 2010.
"At the end of the day, the largest economy in the world, the U.S, continues to recover," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist with RidgeWorth Investments in Virginia. "The pace is painfully slow, and the threats we were worried about last year have evolved into new threats. Visibility remains murky."
The stock market ended a turbulent year with a fizzle — all pain and no gain. The S&P 500 index, a broad measure of major companies, finished at almost exactly the same spot as 2010, with only a few hundredths of a point difference, at 1,257 points. The Dow Jones industrial average closed at 12,217 points, up 5.5 percent for the year. And the Nasdaq composite index, finished at 2,605 points, down 1.8 percent.
The big financial news for 2011? "That the United States private sector managed to get through without disaster," said Peter G. Morici, a University of Maryland Smith School of Business professor and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.
"I'm serious," Morici continued. "This economy is not being well-managed. The economy is treading water, and so is the market."
Since the recession, U.S. companies moved quickly to stabilize their businesses through job- and cost-cutting moves, and the overall economy has chalked up sluggish growth. Investors were forced to keep a wary eye on the public sector last year, at home and abroad, as central banks and political leaders grappled with heavy government debt and unpopular austerity measures in the United States and Europe.
Expect more of the same trepidation this year, analysts say.
Investors and economists are worried that Europe will lurch into recession in the first half of 2012, due to its debt crisis, and are watching for signs of how the U.S. would fare if that happens. Overall, though, U.S. company stocks remain strong when compared to those of other developed countries.
Standard & Poor's, which manages the S&P 500 index and tracks worldwide markets, found that the U.S. was the third-best global stock market last year in terms of financial returns, behind Indonesia and the Philippines.
For now, part of the problem for investors and Wall Street, analysts said, is that the slow U.S. economic growth rate is leaving them tentative. The nation's economy grew at a rate under 2 percent in 2011, and some economists are predicting slightly more than 2 percent growth in 2012. Before the recession hit, the gross domestic product was growing at around 3 percent.
"We're having a hard time wrapping our head around the notion of what slow growth looks like," Gayle said.
In Maryland, the state's mix of biotechnology, technology, finance, manufacturing, real estate and federal contracting companies bore mixed results in 2011. Looking ahead, investors and analysts will be monitoring the impact of federal spending cuts on the state's deep employment base of federal agencies and government contracting firms.
The Bloomberg Maryland Index, a price-weighted list of companies with operations in the region, showed that share prices for 30 firms had performed better in 2011 than in the previous year. Forty-five of the 75 companies in the index were down from the previous year. Overall, Maryland companies tracked by the Bloomberg index were down 3 percent for the year.
Under Armour, Federal Realty Investment Trust, Lockheed Martin, W.R. Grace, and OpNet Technologies led the pack in stock growth. Meanwhile, Human Genome Sciences, United Therapeutics, Medifast, Corporate Office Properties Trust and Legg Mason trailed the pack, according to the Bloomberg index.
In early 2011, investors gladly saw their equities and 401(k) holdings gain in value, and the bulls returned to the market. Indeed, in early February, the Dow closed above 12,000 for the first time since mid-2008, even as investors kept an eye on uprisings in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The fallout from the revolutions in Egypt and Libya continues, but it hasn't contributed to the U.S. market's volatility in several months, experts said.
The first real test for the U.S. stock market came soon after March 11, when a devastating one-two punch of an earthquake and a tsunami struck eastern Japan, killing more than 15,000 people and disrupting the economy of the nation's fourth-largest trading partner.