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Wall Street just had a record first half, up 18 percent so far this year

Despite recession klaxons blaring and a monthslong trade war between the world's two top economies, the financial milestones are impressive.
Image: Peter Mazza, Mario Picone
Since the beginning of the year, Wall Street is up 18 percent, oil has spiked by almost 25 percent, and gold is scaling a six-year high.Richard Drew / AP

The first six months of 2019 may well prove to be the best first half of a year ever — and one that not even the most wily investor would have predicted after the dire end to 2018 and what has happened since.

The world's two top economies are slugging it out in a full-blown trade war and the recession warning klaxons are blaring, but still the performance numbers and milestones are astonishing.

Wall Street is up 18 percent, Europe 13 percent and China has jumped 20 percent. Oil has raced almost 25 percent higher following its best first quarter since 2009, and gold is scaling a six-year high.

"It has been really impressive," said Swiss fund managers Pictet's chief strategist Luca Paolini about the rebound from last year's beating. "All sectors, all markets, all asset classes are in positive territory and that is rather unusual."

A mirror image of 2018 when almost everything fell? Perhaps. But there have been two important drivers.

One was China showing it was serious about monetary and fiscal stimulus for its $14 trillion economy. The second has been the change of direction by the Federal Reserve, which now looks set to cut U.S. interest rates for the first time since the financial crisis. That has lit a fire under bond markets, which have gone off like a rocket.

U.S. Treasuries, the world's benchmark government IOUs, have made a whopping 7 percent as their yields have fallen almost 70 basis points this year. That followed a 37 basis point fall the last quarter of 2018, whereas in the five quarters prior to that they had consistently risen.

Cryptoassets are back in vogue, with bitcoin up 220 percent after its 2018 fall from grace.

More risky high-yield debt, local-currency emerging market bonds and corporate debt have all brought in between 8-9 percent, and currency markets have been on the turn too.

"It is very unusual to see this breadth of strength," said HSBC Asset Management's chief global strategist, Joseph Little. "The question is, has it been too fast and too furious. It's a very good question."

Wall Street's rally has left the S&P 500 and Nasdaq enjoying the view at record highs with the so-called FANG tech stocks providing much of the altitude again: Facebook has surged 44 percent, Amazon 27 percent, and streaming giant Netflix has soared more than 38 percent.

Despite the fierce tensions with China over Huawei, the tech sector still tops the S&P 500, with Microsoft and Cisco the top two performers on the Dow Jones, having both leaped by 30 percent.