Markets are also tracking the political landscape leading up to November's presidential election. Expect another wrenching battle over the U.S. debt ceiling and fighting on the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff over the scheduled expiration of the Bush administration tax cuts and other spending cuts and additional taxes.
Europe, meanwhile, continues to be a modern-day Tower of Babel, to which investors now can add the sputtering economic engines of China and India.
These and other headline-grabbing issues were on the radar in January when we highlighted 10 investment themes for 2012. At this midyear checkup, what course corrections, if any, should investors make? Check out these money-making investment ideas for the second half.
Go big • Six months ago it was clear that the 2012 market climate would favor careful stock selection and prudent stewardship of capital. Advice to stick with large U.S. stocks and to hunt for yield has proved lucrative.
As for what to do next, global economic growth is an oxymoron at this point. Consider beefing up holdings of large-cap U.S. stocks with solid growth prospects, strong cash flow and a history of dividend payments.
Growth stocks should continue to top value stocks, while large-caps stay ahead of small-caps and U.S. equities outperform Europe. U.S. midcap stocks increasingly are seen as overbought and overvalued.
The biggest of the big, the so-called mega-caps of the Standard & Poor's 100-stock index, in fact are breaking out of a two-year trading range and emerging as market leaders, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch research.
For example, the 10 highest-yielding stocks in the Dow Jones industrial average, the so-called Dogs of the Dow, were up 6.8 percent for the year through July 11, while the Dow rose 3.2 percent. AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are the top-two yielders in the Dow, and also the biggest percentage gainers.
Be defensive • An emphasis on the return of capital rather than return on capital has not only given investors a solid cushion, but has also made them money. Defensive stocks have been the U.S. market's best performers so far this year.
As for what to do next, the best offense continues to be a good defense, even with strong year-to-date gains in traditionally stable, dividend-rich market sectors within the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.
Consumer discretionary stocks rose 11 percent on average for the year through July 10, while the health-care sector gained 8.5 percent and consumer staples added almost 8 percent. Those sectors are still attractive, according to Merrill Lynch. But the outlook is more cautious for the utilities sector, which is up 2.1 percent on the back of a 15 percent gain in 2011.
Beware sensitivity • Stocks sensitive to the economy are lagging this year, just as they did in 2011. The energy sector has fared worst, down almost 6 percent, while materials and industrials stocks are both up about 3 percent on average.
The one cyclical standout is technology, gaining almost 11 percent on the year so far.
As for what to do next, on a valuation basis, materials, industrials and energy are cheap relative to the S&P 500, but that doesn't make them screaming buys yet.
"These sectors will outperform over time," said Heather Brilliant, vice president of global equity and credit research at investment researcher Morningstar Inc., in a recent report. But, she added, "the issues holding these sectors back namely lower commodity prices and weak global demand for commodities are likely to continue for the coming quarter."
Technology is different. Remarkably, technology stocks are priced lower than utilities. Technology also trades at a discount to the S&P 500 for the first time since 1996, according to Merrill Lynch. Tech stocks tend to have lots of cash, strong balance sheets and generally good growth prospects, especially among software and services businesses. One caveat is that tech's exposure to Europe is the highest of any S&P 500 sector.
Divine dividends • U.S. companies are in the money, and are sharing more of the wealth with stockholders by initiating or raising quarterly dividend payments.
Investors who took the advice at the start of the year to own companies with dividend yields above the 10-year Treasury have done well.
Shares of Walmart Stores Inc., with a yield of around 2.4 percent, are up more than 22 percent in 2012. Microsoft Corp., with a yield topping 3 percent, has gained 14 percent; Colgate-Palmolive Co., yielding 2.4 percent, is also up about 14 percent. Some losers in this higher-yield group are McDonald's Corp. and Chevron Corp.
As for what to do next, dividend strategies have become enormously popular, and with that, more investors are concerned that the valuations of these stocks are getting stretched. Those worries may be premature, but it's worth remembering former Wall Street analyst Bob Farrell's second rule of market behavior: "Excesses in one direction will lead to an opposite excess in the other direction."
That said, dividend-hunters can take comfort owning shares of companies with a history of dividend growth and not just a current high yield. Companies with strong cash flow and a history of raising dividends year after year will likely continue to attract investment.
Small is sometimes better • U.S. small-caps didn't fare so well in 2011, but performance has perked up so far this year, with the benchmark Russell 2000 Index gaining almost 8 percent.
As for what to do next, small-caps deserve respect but don't always get it.
Performance this year is close to the 11.5 percent return that Steven DeSanctis, Merrill Lynch small-cap strategist, has forecast for the group. And although these stocks are lagging most large-caps, they're outpacing midcaps and trouncing Chinese stocks.
Investors considering small-caps should be mindful that a slow-growth U.S. economy will hurt many of these mostly domestic companies. So the general rule of owning high-quality, cash-rich companies applies here, as well.
European surprises • Investors in Europe have been trying to catch a falling knife. The absence of a solution to the euro-zone debt crisis leaves a continent-wide abscess that has yet to be addressed in firm, decisive ways.
As for what to do next, don't give up on Europe, even though many strategists favor emerging markets in Asia over developing Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Within developed Europe, intrepid buyers could find that "attractive valuations and depressed prices could lead to short-term rallies in European equities," Merrill Lynch analysts noted, although they added that a sustainable rally is unlikely until Europe's policymakers attack the continent's banking crisis head-on.
For now, pay attention to what Merrill calls Europe's "best of breed" companies. The firm's recent European recommendations mostly focused on U.K.-based stocks, including AstraZeneca PLC, WPP PLC and Compass Group PLC, plus Germany's Siemens AG.
Bullish on the buck • The U.S. dollar has gained at the expense of the euro, which was the forecast made in January.
The U.S. Dollar Index is up 4.3 percent so far this year, while the euro trades around $1.22 to the U.S. dollar, down from a 52-week high of about $1.45. An exchange-traded proxy for the dollar, PowerShares DB U.S. Dollar Index Bullish Fund, has gained about 2.5 percent in 2012.
As for what to do next, "Maintain a core position in the U.S. dollar," said Christopher Vecchio, a currency analyst at DailyFX. He suggested that investors stay bullish until the Fed moves to ease monetary policy, which would be perceived as devaluing the dollar and positive for commodities and the currencies of commodity-producing nations.
The security of gold • Gold prices have been volatile this year. Exchange-traded proxies SPDR Gold Trust and iShares Gold Trust are essentially flat. Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF, a proxy for the group, is down 19 percent so far in 2012.
As for what to do next, weak global growth is dragging on gold prices. India and China are among the world's largest gold buyers, and the slowdown in those major economies have taken a toll on precious metals.
Gold may have lost its speculative quality of recent years, but it still protects against global upheaval. "Gold is a valuable part of a portfolio," said Nicholas Colas, ConvergEx Group chief market strategist. "It's the one thing that will work when nothing else does. If policymakers make a dramatic misstep, gold is good insurance. If they get it right, then the other 90 percent of your portfolio is going to do so good, you won't mind."
Hail the chief • Presidential election years typically are not the strongest in the four-year market cycle; the third year is. But 2011 was unusually weak; and 2012 so far has been unusually strong.
U.S. stocks have gained 5.7 percent on average in election years since 1944, according to S&P Capital IQ. But the S&P 500 has already topped that, rising more than 7 percent, including dividends, for the year through July 12.
As for what to do next, U.S. stocks tend to do better in the fourth quarter of an election year, once the votes are counted. Third quarters are generally weak, and election years have been no exception. That could change this year if the Fed pumps liquidity into the markets after its mid-September meeting.
In praise of safety • In this uncertain geopolitical environment, alarming headlines are giving investors headaches. Focusing on safety and income at a reasonable price the advice in January from David Rosenberg, chief economist & strategist at Toronto-based wealth manager Gluskin Sheff + Associates has proved prescient.
As for what to do next, a Wall Street adage says that when growth is everywhere, the market prices it like water. When growth is scarce, it's priced like diamonds.
Welcome to the Diamond District. Investors have to pay up for growth. Safety and income is also more expensive. But, again, the goal of investors nowadays should be the return of capital, not return on capital.
Moreover, safety can still be had at a reasonable price if you know where to look. At Gluskin Sheff, clients have positions in consumer-related businesses, including Home Depot Inc., which yields 2.3 percent, and General Growth Properties Inc., with a 2.2 percent yield.