Specialists Frank Masello, left, and John T. O'Hara work on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York shortly before the closing bell on Friday. - AP

Surprise: Despite what you might think, stocks having a strong year

NEW YORK — For all the scary headlines — a bailout of Spanish banks, JPMorgan's huge trading loss, the sputtering job market, Facebook's failed initial public offering — it's a wonder stocks aren't down more this year.

Actually, stocks aren't down. That was a trick sentence. At the halfway mark for 2012, stocks are up more than 8 percent.

"People think we're down because memories are short," says Rex Macey, chief investment officer at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors. "It feels like the market's been worse than it actually has."

The year began with investors focusing on corporate America's record profits and scooping up stocks. The Standard & Poor's 500 index surged 12 percent from January through March.

It looked like that gain might be wiped out in the second quarter. Investors worried about Europe's inability to find a lasting solution to its debt crisis and about slower job growth in the United States.

Then came Friday: European leaders announced a broad strategy to funnel money into failing banks and keep borrowing costs down for governments, and stocks soared around the world.

It all left the S&P 500 up a healthy 8.3 percent for the year.

What happens next will probably depend on corporate earnings again. For April through June, they are expected to fall 0.7 percent from a year ago, according to S&P Capital IQ, a research firm. That would be the first drop in nearly three years.

So far, though, stocks in the U.S. are trouncing those in many countries. European markets are nearly all down this year, and several are down more than 10 percent. And many big emerging markets are struggling. China is down 1 percent, Russia 7 percent and Brazil 14 percent.

The backdrop is a darkening economic picture. China's economy is slowing, consumer confidence in the U.S. has sunk for four straight months, and a report next Friday is expected to show a fourth straight month of weak job growth.

As if that weren't bad enough, U.S. companies, from retailers to consumer goods makers to technology firms, are talking down investor expectations for how much they'll earn over the next several months, and that is sinking their stocks.

In mid-June, defense contractor AAR dropped 11 percent after cutting its outlook. Then Philip Morris fell 3 percent after it trimmed earnings estimates. Ryder System, a truck leasing company, reined in guidance last week and fell 13 percent.

Then there's the sorry case of Bed Bath & Beyond, which had been an investor favorite. It lowered earnings estimates June 21 and disclosed it had to give out more coupons to get people to shop. The stock plummeted 17 percent, erasing in hours most of what it gained over several months.

Tally them up, and for every company raising its expected earnings, nearly four are lowering them, according to Thomson Reuters, a financial information company. Projections haven't been that negative in more than a decade.

"We began the year thinking we'd achieved escape velocity," says Barry Knapp, chief U.S. equity strategist at Barclays Capital. "But the second quarter data has deteriorated."

Well, not all of it. The price of gasoline has dropped to a five-month low, which means Americans have more money to spend elsewhere and boost the economy. And the housing market may finally be recovering.

James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, says falling gas prices and mortgage rates have kick-started economic growth in the second halves of the previous two years, and he thinks they will this time, too.

He thinks the S&P 500 could end 2012 at 1,500, up 19 percent for the year. It closed Friday at 1,362.

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