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April Was Worst Month For Markets Since Crisis, Sort Of: Report

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A trader works on the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange on April 20, 2012 in New York City. The bond market was the only asset with positive returns in April, according to a new report.
A trader works on the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange on April 20, 2012 in New York City. The bond market was the only asset with positive returns in April, according to a new report.

Financial markets went back into crisis mode in April.

Bonds, relatively safe-haven investments, were the only global asset class to enjoy positive monthly returns in April, Bloomberg declared on Tuesday. Stocks, commodities and the dollar, generally seen as riskier bets, all fell in the month.

This is a pretty natural result of the mini-freakout investors suffered in April. The March employment report was bad, raising worries about a slowdown in U.S. economic growth, to go along with worries about a slowdown in Chinese economic growth. And Europe's debt crisis started setting people's money on fire again.

But here's what's maybe more surprising: April was also the first month since January 2008 in which bonds were the only asset class with positive returns, according to Bloomberg. That's pretty surprising, given how many crises and mini-crises have hit global markets since January 2008, but there you have it. It's math. You can't fight it.

Or maybe you can: Bloomberg is using four very specific measures to gauge different global asset classes. Other measures might tell different stories. What's more, this really isn't a useful way to measure market discomfort -- markets were way, way more panicky in September 2008, say, or August 2011. And Bloomberg's four horsemen of the asset-class-pocalyse do not include foreign currencies -- if you'd invested in Japanese yen or the Singaporean dollar last month, you'd have done great.

But anyway, here are the benchmarks Bloomberg used and how they did: The Bank of America Merrill Lynch global bond index posted a total return, including interest payments, of 0.7 percent in April. At the same time, the MSCI All-Country World Index of stocks lost 1.1 percent, including dividends; the Standard & Poor's GSCI Total Return index of metals, fuels and agricultural products lost 0.5 percent; and the U.S. Dollar Index fell 0.3 percent.

This might encourage mom-and-pop investors to continue to pour money into bonds, as they have been doing pretty consistently since the financial crisis, avoiding stocks like they were a debt collector -- even as U.S. stocks have soared to their highest levels in four years.

In fact, U.S. stocks hit fresh highs Tuesday morning, thanks to a better-than-expected reading on U.S. manufacturing in April. Bonds, which fell on Tuesday, the first trading day of the new month, probably won't stay alone on top of the investment heap for long. And after a 30-year bull market that peaked around the time of the financial crisis, it's going to be hard to get big returns out of bonds for the longer haul.

But some of the problems that dogged stocks in April haven't gone away just yet, particularly the European debt crisis.

And investors are still understandably reluctant to stick their money back into a stock market that has repeatedly chewed them up and spit them out over the past dozen years or so and is mainly populated by flash-trading robots.

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