The Nightmare Portfolio of 2009

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Is it possible for an investor to be losing money in financial markets this year?

With an incredible amount of bad timing and wrong-headed conviction, you actually could have constructed a portfolio on Jan. 1 that would be deep in the red by now -- even as most stocks, bonds and commodities have rallied sharply.


Basically, if you bet heavily at the start of the year on some version of economic and market Armageddon unfolding in 2009 -- and you’ve refused to budge from that bet -- you probably are in a world of hurt.

Though I concede the year isn’t over, and it’s possible that financial Armageddon has only been deferred, here’s my idea of the Nightmare Portfolio of 2009:

--- A long-term Treasury bond fund. As 2008 ended Treasury yields had plunged to near-record lows as some investors flocked to the relative safety of government bonds, fearing that the worst was yet to come for the economy and the financial system.

Bad move: Treasury yields began to rebound with the turn of the calendar to January, as the market focused less on the economic meltdown that was in progress and more on Uncle Sam’s massive borrowing needs. When yields go up, bond prices drop.

The 30-year T-bond yield, which fell as low as 2.52% in December, now is at 4.26%. The average total return for long-term T-bond mutual funds this year, according to Morningstar Inc.: a negative 11.6%, as the plunge in bond prices has more than wiped out interest earnings.

--- A bear-market stock fund. With the Standard & Poor’s 500 index down 38% in 2008, and the worst of the recession clearly ahead as 2009 dawned, bear-market funds had huge appeal as portfolio hedges. By using derivative securities or ‘short selling’ strategies the funds are designed to gain if share prices slump.

That continued to be the right market bet -- until stocks hit bottom in early March, turned up, and, so far, haven’t looked back. The average total return of bear market funds year-to-date: a negative 32.3%, compared with the positive 20.5% return of the S&P 500.

--- A strong-dollar fund. If you expected the global financial system to fly apart in 2009 it would have made sense to bet on the dollar rallying, figuring that investors would turn back to the world’s premier currency as a haven. In fact, the greenback rose sharply in January and February as fears of calamity mushroomed.

But once stock markets began to snap back in March the dollar’s allure faded as global investors began to reach for risk again. This month the buck is sliding anew, deepening the losses of funds that bet on dollar strength. Case in point: The Pro-Funds Rising U.S. Dollar fund now is down 9.1% for the year.

--- A natural gas fund. Specifically, the U.S. Natural Gas exchange-traded fund (ticker: UNG). Who knew that, despite the resurgence of crude oil prices this year, natural gas prices would continue to plummet -- to 7 1/2 year lows by early this month?

But there may be hope: Even amid a continuing glut of gas and weak industrial demand, gas futures prices have rebounded 48% since Sept. 3, and the UNG fund is up 30% since then. That may not be much comfort to investors who bought in late last year or early this year, however: The fund still is off 49% year to date.

-- Tom Petruno