Stocks end 2021 on weak note, still notch big yearly gain

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

The S&P 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.”

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. Wall Street also got a boost from the Federal Reserve, which kept its key short-term interest rate near zero all year. That helped keep borrowing costs for companies low and stock valuations high. Investors expect the Fed to start pushing rates higher next year.

There was also intense interest in so-called “meme stocks,” in which large groups of individual investors bought up shares of beaten-down companies like GameStop and AMC Entertainment, causing institutional investors like hedge funds to lose billions. The soaring stock market also led to an explosion in initial public offerings, including online broker Robinhood and electric vehicle maker Rivian Automotive.

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.

The market kept setting new highs despite plenty of challenges, including rising inflation, global supply chain disruptions and outbreaks of more contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus.

“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 uncertainty over global supply chain disruptions remain overhangs going into the year. So is the looming end of the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies.