MARKETS

As we roll into the new year, learn the lessons of a volatile 2012. Because for the at least the first half of 2013, we can expect more of the same, writes MoneyShow's Jim Jubak, also of Jubak's Picks.

So now what? We've had a December sell-down on fears that the United States would go off the fiscal cliff—the Dow Jones Industrial Average was off 2.48% in the fourth quarter.

We've had a huge pre-New Year's move. The S&P 500 climbed 1.7% on December 31 on hopes that the crisis would get resolved, and made an even bigger move on January 2 on an "actual solution." The total gain comes to 4.3% for the two sessions.

But where does the market go from here?

I think you can guess, right? After all, we did go through this pattern of sharp rallies and deep retreats in 2012. So, with the benefit of that experience, let me give you my seven steps for success in the first half of 2013.

Last year, markets went down when high levels of worry about big macro events such as a hard landing for China's economy or a Greek exit from the Eurozone led money around the world to slosh toward safety. When that happened, US Treasuries and German Bunds became the assets of choice, and stock markets with any hint of risk—such as China's or Brazil's—sold off.

Last year, markets went up when worries receded and investors breathed a collective sigh of relief. When European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said he would do whatever it took to defend the euro, and investors decided they didn't need to fear a meltdown in Spain, markets rallied in relief. When China's economy showed evidence that it had bottomed in September without breaking below 7% growth, markets rallied in relief.

When it looked as if the US Congress and president would force the country off the fiscal cliff, markets went into a funk. And when the House of Representatives actually voted to approve a deal on New Year's Day, the sigh of relief swept financial markets around the world.

But we know from 2012 that relief can easily turn back to worry. That seems all too likely in coming weeks.

It's not as if the fiscal cliff "solution" actually solved anything: The mandatory budget cuts—the sequester—that were supposed to force lawmakers to behave like adults (or get spanked like children) have been put off for two months. At the end of that time, Congress will face exactly the same budget cuts.

(And the suspension of these budget cuts in the current deal will be paid for—according to the fiscal cliff compromise—by some amazing gimmicks such as encouraging people to convert their traditional individual retirement accounts to Roth IRAs so they'll pay taxes sooner.)

And it left the whole tax/spending-cut battle to be replayed when the federal government hits its ceiling for borrowing. Depending on what magic Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner pulls out of his hat, the US will run out of room to pay its debts in late January or early February.

Republicans in Congress say they intend to use the leverage from the debt ceiling to force big spending cuts. President Barack Obama says he has no intention of negotiating anything in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling.

It should be interesting. I think we can be sure that the markets, as in the 2011 battle over the debt ceiling, won't be amused at the idea that the United States might default on its obligations.

The 7 Steps
Using the lessons of 2012, here are my seven suggestions for the early stages of 2013:

First, because relief rallies can be incredibly explosive and remarkably short-lived, don't dither. If you're going to try to increase the upside potential of your portfolio by adding stocks that seem likely to do well, do it within the next week—or play the hand you've got.

The worst move is to wait and wait, hoping for evidence that will convince you that this move up is for real. That practically guarantees that you'll be jumping in just as sentiment starts to turn. You'll be buying high and will probably wind up selling low.

Tickers Mentioned: ACH, LFC, PNGAY, VALE, PBR