The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) handed investors a loss during the first quarter of 2014, disappointing those who hoped the blue-chip index would set new all-time highs and continue its five-year advance. Yet the Dow wasn't nearly the worst performer in the world during 2014's first three months, as several other stock markets posted losses. Let's take a look at some of the major laggards.
Japan's Nikkei: Down 9%
The Nikkei 225 (NIKKEIINDICES:^NI225) dropped 9% during the first quarter, which was the Japanese market's worst decline for a quarter in nearly two years. The plunge took many investors by surprise, given how well the Nikkei did last year. Japan's strong performance in 2013 came from a strengthening economy, which was supported by a central-bank policy favoring a weaker Japanese yen to make exporting companies in the island nation more competitive. But a pause in the yen's decline this year has led to further challenges for Japan's domestic economy, and internationally, slowing growth in the Chinese economy and the removal of stimulus measures in the U.S. are threatening key markets for Japanese companies. Investors are still sitting on big gains since the beginning of 2013, but the question is whether Japan can renew its stock market growth once this correction plays itself out.
China's Shanghai: Down 4%
The Shanghai Composite suffered a 4% first-quarter decline, as the world's No. 2 economy's growth rate continued to slow. Recently, economic figures from the manufacturing sector have been weak, with a plunge in export activity during February sending China's trade balance into a deficit situation. Exports are an incredibly important part of China's contribution to the global economy, with the nation being the No. 1 exporter during 2013. Yet even though China's growth rates remain high by world standards, investors have come to rely on those high levels of growth; as they slow, commodities and other key markets have suffered a lot of damage. China needs to restore accelerated growth in order to convince investors to have faith in its markets again, but measures such as reducing the value of the yuan might prove to be a controversial way to try to accomplish that goal.
Britain's FTSE: Down 2%
The FTSE 100 (FTSEINDICES:^FTSE) fell 2.2% during the first quarter, just slightly underperforming the Dow. Conditions in Europe weigh heavily on the U.K. stock market, and persistently low levels of inflation have the European Central Bank worried about deflationary pressures that could send the continent's economy back into recession. For its part, the U.K. market has been hit by a relatively strong British pound, which has risen to its highest level against the dollar since early 2011. The pound's strength has put Britain's multinational giants at a competitive disadvantage compared to countries with weaker currencies, but in the long run, the economic policies that have produced a strong currency could serve the FTSE 100 well.
The Dow's tiny decline in the first quarter was disappointing for many investors, but you shouldn't panic about it. It's natural for stock markets to rise and fall in turn, and with so much company on the downside, the Dow actually did reasonably well on a relative basis to start out 2014.