US markets hit highs, but world stocks soar

If it doesn't feel like a raging bull market, that's because it isn't – at least not yet.

Small investors aren't eagerly swapping stock tips as they were in 1999. But it's a bull market all the same, and one that's global in scope.

From Europe to Asia, stock markets have been on the rise. In many ways, US shares are playing catch-up. The Standard & Poor's 500 index hit a new all-time record on Wednesday – finally edging back over the peak it hit back in March 2000.

German shares have been rising even faster this year, up more than 15 percent since Jan. 1, as tracked by Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI). The S&P 500 has risen about 7 percent in that time.

In Singapore and South Korea, stocks have gained more than 15 percent. Nordic markets are up 13 percent, and the euro zone as a whole is also near the double-digit zone.

All this is a sign of a largely healthy global economy that, analysts say, is helping to fuel the fortunes of American and foreign companies alike. How far it will go is an open question, but many strategists see more room to run.

"This is the greatest global boom of all time. That's not a forecast, that's really an observation," says Ed Yardeni, an economist who provides investment strategy advice from his office in Great Neck, N.Y.

He traces the global boom to the end of the cold war and the expansion of global commerce in the 1990s. Whereas the economic boom after World War II was led by the might of American industry, the current one is worldwide in scope.

"There's the potential for these markets to continue to enjoy a strong rally," Mr. Yardeni says. "I think there is more [to come]."

Because investors have generally favored non-US markets in the past few years, he and other analysts see the prospect for large US companies to be among the best performers if the bull market plows forward.

These multinational firms – the core of the S&P 500 index – derive much of their profits and sales from the strong global economy, and arguably their share prices haven't kept up with their own success.

"Investors are just starting to pay up for those earnings" in large companies, says Joseph Quinlan, chief market strategist at Bank of America in New York.

Growing nations take a bigger bite

Share prices in the US and abroad are benefiting from several years of synchronized global growth. One sign of that broad-based foundation: Other nations have been increasing their imports of goods faster than the US has.

America remains the world's greatest consuming nation, but it is no longer the only one.

"The baton of global consumption is being passed from the developed nations in general, and the United States in particular, to the developing nations," Mr. Quinlan writes in a new report.

All of that provides a boost to US-based manufacturers at a time when the domestic economy has been slower than normal.

On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that the American economy grew at an annual rate of just 0.6 percent in the first quarter of 2007. A faltering housing market, coupled with the impact of Federal Reserve interest-rate hikes, has dragged the economy into a slower gear.

Still, many economists see signs of some pickup in the second quarter and beyond, despite the risk of a recession.

"You can see the global footprint in our market," Quinlan says in a phone interview.

On average, the 500 companies in the S&P index derive about 45 percent of their sales from abroad, says Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist for Standard & Poor's in New York.

This doesn't mean the world economy, S&P 500 stocks included, wouldn't feel the effects of a US slowdown. And with interest rates rising worldwide this year, it's unclear how long companies can keep posting record earnings.

How long can this bull market run?

A great debate among investors is whether this bull market, which picked up steam in 2003, is just about on its last legs or is ramping up for more big gains.

The S&P 500 closed at 1,530.23 on Wednesday, surpassing the previous high of 1,527.46 set seven years ago.

Mr. Stovall says S&P's own market strategy committee is divided over where the broad-based index will head next.

"We still have a year-end target of 1,510," he says. "It's because we have half of the people who are bullish and half who are cautious."

The cautious camp focuses on a deceleration in the pace of earnings growth, which is now running at single-digit rather than double-digit quarterly growth rates.

Meanwhile, "the bulls are saying the low point in this economy is now, and as we move forward into 2007 and 2008 economic growth is likely to improve," Stovall says. "The world is awash in liquidity." And share prices, relative to profits, "do not look stretched."

He notes that when the 1990s bull market peaked in March 2000, the stocks in the S&P 500 were selling at an unusually elevated level: 28 times their annual earnings. Today that so-called PE ratio is a much more typical 16 times earnings.

And several gauges of investor sentiment show little sign of "irrational exuberance."

A stock bubble is a risk in China, some experts say. But "the authorities there seem to be cognizant of that potential problem," Yardeni says. This week, Chinese officials took steps to curb the enthusiasm there by raising taxes on share trades. On Wednesday, the Shanghai composite index lost 6.5 percent.

Still, Yardeni says that what lies ahead is a riskier phase of the bull market than the post-2003 surge. With earnings growth slowing, price gains will depend more on investors bidding up stock values.

But Yardeni sees the economic fundamentals as solid worldwide.

"I think the biggest risk right now is protectionism," if Congress were to pass anti-China trade measures, he says.

Another risk looms with the 2008 presidential election and the possibility that investors could begin to see tax hikes on the horizon.

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