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China Holds Fate of Stock ETFs

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( ETF Expert) -- In 2011, the S&P 500 began the year with remarkable fanfare. The benchmark raked in 2.4% in January alone. And yet, in 2012, the S&P 500 has been even more impressive, snagging an eye-popping 4.4%.

The reasons for the risk-on gains may be easy to identify, from the notion that U.S. economic prospects are improving to the feeling that Europe will contain its debt crisis. Throw in the need for short-sellers to cover their profits in the most beaten-down sectors (e.g., alternative energy, metals mining, European financials, etc.), and one's recipe for a rally is nearly complete.

Going forward, however, the decision of one country will be more critical than any other: China.

Consider the state of world affairs near its most bearish in 2011. What turned the tides? Was it the hope that Angela Merkel would mortgage Germany's future by agreeing to euro-bonds? Did investors believe that the Fed would eventually bail out Europe with the purchase of Spanish or Portuguese debt? In truth, the first spaghetti to stick on the wall was the mid-September rumor that China might buy Italian bonds.

Of course, China doesn't just hold the key to debt crisis containment. The world's second largest economy is the primary driver of global economic growth.

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Last year, Chinese officials were busy taming the inflation dragon with tighter banking policies. Leaders steadily raised bank reserve requirements as well as interest rates, causing commodity prices as well as resources-rich nation ETFs to plummet.

This year, though, China's leadership has shown an increasing willingness to lower bank reserve requirements and/or refrain from additional rate hikes. The result?
1-Month Returns For Resources-Rich Country ETFs And Commodity-Related ETFs
Approx %
iShares MSCI Brazil (EWZ) 15.5%
Market Vectors Russia (RSX) 15.2%
iShares MSCI Peru (EPU) 13.7%
iShares MSCI South Africa (EZA) 9.4%
iShares MSCI Australia (EWA) 9.2%
iShares MSCI Chile (ECH) 8.6%
iShares MSCI Canada (EWC) 7.5%
Market Vectors Rare Earth Metals (REMX) 19.5%
Market Vectors Steel (SLX) 17.8%
First Trust Materials (FXZ) 12.8%
SPDR Metals & Mining (XME) 12.4%
iShares S&P Global Materials (MXI) 12.0%
SPDR S&P 500 Trust (SPY) 4.1%

Theoretically speaking, reversions to average P/Es should be enough to stoke a fire for equities. That said, we've already seen stocks trade for 440-plus consecutive days below 50-year average P/Es. It follows that we're far more likely to see stocks get a lift from evidence of a "soft" economic landing in China as well as any decisions China may make to keep Europe from the abyss.
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