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‘Amazingly strong’ — 2021 was a year of incredible gains on Wall Street

A Wall Street sign is carved into the side of a building.
A wave of consumer demand fueled by the reopening of economies pumped up corporate profits more than expected in 2021, which helped keep investors in a buying mood.
(Associated Press)

Stocks capped a quiet day of trading with modest losses Friday, even as Wall Street closed the books on another banner year.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 finished with a gain of 26.9% for the year, or a total return of about 29%, including dividends. That’s nearly as much as the benchmark index gained in 2019. The Nasdaq composite, powered by Big Tech stocks, climbed 21.4% in 2021. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 18.7%, with Home Depot and Microsoft leading the way.

“It’s the third year in a row of incredible gains,” said J.J. Kinahan, chief strategist with TD Ameritrade. “The market itself was just amazingly strong.”

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New workplace laws taking effect in January strengthening employees’ health, safety and wage protections and ban corporate muzzling of discrimination victims. But many more mandates tagged “job killers” were stopped from becoming law.

A wave of consumer demand fueled by the reopening of economies pumped up corporate profits more than expected in 2021, which helped keep investors in a buying mood. The Federal Reserve and other central banks also helped prop up the market by keeping interest rates extremely low, which makes borrowing money more affordable for companies and consumers.

There was also intense interest in so-called “meme stocks,” which arose as large groups of individual investors bought up shares of beaten-down companies such as GameStop and AMC Entertainment, causing hedge funds and other institutional investors to lose billions.

Along the way, the S&P 500 set 70 all-time highs, its most recent one on Wednesday. In the post-World War II era, that’s the most new highs for the index since the 77 it set in 1954.

Some were just in it for the money. Others saw a chance to stick it to Wall Street. Between them, they made GameStop the latest symbol of chaotic internet-fueled change.

The market kept setting new highs despite plenty of challenges, including higher inflation, global supply chain disruptions and outbreaks of more contagious variants of the coronavirus.

“Although there are a lot of things that people were nervous about all year and continue to be nervous about as we head to ’22, at the end of the day the U.S. [stock] market still seems to be the best game in town,” Kinahan said.

Still, the fast-spreading Omicron variant and the looming end of the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies in 2022 are overhangs for investors going into the new year.

Trading was very slow Friday, with most of Wall Street on vacation and many fund managers having already closed out their positions for 2021.

The major indexes spent much of the day flipping between small gains and losses. The S&P 500 fell 12.55 points, or 0.3%, to 4,766.18. The Dow slid 59.78 points, or 0.2%, to 36,338.30. The Nasdaq fell 96.59 points, or 0.6%, to 15,644.97.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies slipped 3.48 points, or 0.2%, to 2,245.31. The index ended the year with a gain of 13.7%.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note held steady at 1.51% after the bond market closed at 2 p.m. Eastern ahead of the New Year’s Day holiday.


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