With the Dow up 27% and the S&P rising 30%, 2013 was a banner year for the stock market and an amazing year for a few select stock-pickers. Investing legends like Paul Tudor Jones, John Paulson and David Tepper were among the biggest winners last year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Broadly speaking, what these investors had in common was "they put their faith in the most aggressive central banks - the U.S. and Japan - and believed in the economies in those markets," says Yahoo Finance's Michael Santoli. "On the flip side, they abandoned the safety trade. That's the story of 2013: These guys made leveraged bets in that direction."
For example, Jones made more than $100 million on a $10 billion bet against gold, The Journal reports. Gold stumbled 28% in 2013, putting a huge dent in the bullish consensus on the yellow metal that developed during its historic rally from 2001-2012.
Meanwhile, The WSJ says Jeffrey Altman's $4 billion Owl Creek Asset Management rose 48% in 2013, thanks largely to a bullish bet on Japan, where the Nikkei soared 57%. The amazing thing is the rise in Japan's market "was so scripted and organized and telegraphed," Santoli notes.
Indeed, when Shinzo Abe was elected Prime Minister in late 2012, he pledged aggressive action to boost the Japanese economy and markets via combination of aggressive monetary and fiscal stimulus. Hindsight is 20-20 and so now "everybody" sees why betting on Japan's stock market made sense last year. While Altman, Dan Loeb and Cumberland Advisors were among those who bet big on Japan, many observers questioned Abe's ability to execute his plan at the beginning of the year, or what the outcome would be.
As 2014 gets underway, the "long Japan" trade has gotten crowded, but there remains a lot of skepticism about Abe's policies and whether they can translate into progress for the "real" economy.
In this regard, Japan is "the whip end of this global bullish trade," Santoli says. "As I look into 2014, that reservoir of caution and skepticism is not totally depleted yet."
From a contrarian perspective, that would point to additional gains in 2014 although, as Santoli further notes, "the market is calling out for a bit of a scare here."
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