Stocks and bonds in 1991 paid off like a Las Vegas slot machine gone haywire, producing double-digit returns that embarrassed most other investments.
But financial markets tend to adjust themselves faster than most casino managers can pull the plug on errant slots. In 1992, investors will have to lower their sights a lot, most Wall Street experts say.
With stocks in particular, "don't expect the kinds of returns that you had in 1991," warns Bob Chesek, money manager at the Phoenix Group of mutual funds in Hartford, Conn.
Nonetheless, many analysts see an excellent chance that stocks and bonds will continue to beat money-market ("cash") instruments, gold and other rival investments. Here's a look at 1991 returns in key investment sectors and what to expect in 1992:
* Stocks: It was tough not to make money in stocks last year, if you were in the market for the entire year and were diversified. The benchmark measure of blue chip stocks, the Standard & Poor's 500 index, posted a total return of about 29.7 percent for the year, including a dividend yield of about 3.4 percent.
The real action was in smaller stocks, however. The average stock mutual fund that targets smaller companies surged an estimated 49.9 percent; growth-stock funds, which also own many smaller issues, rose an estimated 35.4 percent.
Perspective is important in viewing those figures, however: The average small-stock fund had fallen almost 10 percent in the 1990 bear market. So part of the 1991 gain was just making up lost ground.
Even so, there's no denying the spectacular nature of last year's gains, fueled by hopes for a still- uncertain economic recovery and by plunging short-term interest rates.
The problem now may be that stocks have simply run up too far, too fast, some analysts argue. The average S&P; 500 stock closed at an all-time high on Dec. 31 and is priced at 21 times its estimated 1991 earnings per share and 16 times the earnings estimated by Wall Street analysts for 1992.
Those price-to-earnings figures are near the high end of their historical scale. That doesn't mean stocks can't rise further. But the numbers suggest that there is little room for error: If a &L; recovery doesn't arrive and corporate profits don't rebound (they've been falling for more than two years), stocks are vulnerable.
At best, veteran money managers see a stock market return in 1992 that is much closer to historical averages: 7 percent to 10 percent a year. But that may still beat most of the alternatives.
* Bonds: Bond investors have a three-year winning streak going and a good shot at continuing that streak in 1992, experts say. High-yield corporate junk bonds performed best in 1991, scoring a total return of nearly 35 percent. The bonds had slumped in 1990 on recession worries.
Meanwhile, investors earned double-digit returns last year in most bond categories, from Treasuries to high-quality corporate issues to tax-exempt municipals.
Besides interest earnings of 6 percent to 9 percent on most bonds, investors earned a bonus: Their bonds appreciated in value as market interest rates fell. The yield on 30-year Treasury bonds finished the year at 7.39 percent, down from 8.24 percent one year ago.
For 1992, many bond experts see somewhat lower total returns. You'll still take home your interest, but the sharp appreciation in bond values is probably over unless market interest rates fall much more dramatically.
For bond investors who bought into the market last year, the best advice may be just to stay put and enjoy your high yields, says Bud Hoops, who manages the bond portion of the $335 million Twentieth Century Balanced mutual fund in Kansas City, Mo. For new investors, the sharp decline in yields already means "it's getting long in the game" to over-commit to long-term bonds.
For bigger risk-takers, bond manager William H. Gross at Pacific Investment Management in Newport Beach, Calif., suggests looking to mutual funds that own foreign bonds, which typically pay higher yields than U.S. bonds.
* Cash: If you kept your money in bank certificates of deposit or money-market funds last year, the best you can say is that you beat inflation. Barely.
The Federal Reserve's campaign to slash short-term interest rates -- an attempt to jump-start the economy -- has left three-month Treasury bills yielding less than 4 percent today, down from 6.5 percent a year ago. In 1991, the average money-market mutual fund yielded 5.7 percent. In 1992, prospects aren't much better.
* Gold and silver: The price of gold fell 1.8 percent in 1989, 2.1 percent in 1990 and 10.2 percent in 1991, to end the year at $354.10 an ounce. That's a sorry record by any stretch of the imagination. Silver and platinum have fared even worse.
Investors bet on gold when they bet on inflation growing. Unfortunately for the gold bugs, all arguments for higher inflation have failed to hold water.
In 1992, chances of a bad inflation surprise are even lower because inflation typically declines in the first full year of an economic recovery.
What's more, the traditional flight to gold in times of world turmoil also has waned in recent years. The bottom line: Gold used to be an insurance policy, but now it's little more than another speculative investment.