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Could markets fly in 2016?

For investors all around the globe, 2015 was a difficult year.

In Asia, many stock markets, from the local Straits Times Index to Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index, ended the year lower.

Tokyo's Nikkei 225 was one of a handful of markets that bucked the downtrend, ending the year up 9 per cent.

In Europe, the FTSE 100 Index slid 4 per cent and in the United States, the Dow Jones Industrial Average slipped 1 per cent.

It is important not to be too negative. There are many companies that can do well, not just in 2016 but in the years that follow. You just have to look for them.

In short, concerns over falling oil prices, China's economic slowdown, mixed signals about the effectiveness of Japan's "Abenomics" reforms and the anticipation of a rise in US interest rates hit many markets around the globe.

Given the events of 2015, investors are understandably cautious about 2016 too. But with oil prices bumping along the bottom and China's Herculean efforts to manage a difficult economic transition, things could be at a turning point.

Additionally, with the US Federal Reserve's decision to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade out of the way, we could be on the cusp of witnessing something quite exciting for equity markets.

But it was the Fed's indecision over interest rates that probably caused the most concern for global investors last year.

Investors don't mind news, regardless of whether it is good or bad. They can cope with that. But they are uncomfortable with uncertainty, which is precisely what the Fed caused by dithering over when to hike rates.

That said, the debate over interest rates is now over. By and large, the US financial system, and in particular its banks, has been repaired. US banks are now reckoned to be strong enough to handle another crisis, if one should happen.

Apart from the banks, the US economy as a whole is also showing signs of strength. Unemployment, which now stands at 5 per cent, has fallen below its long-term average of 5.8 per cent.

Inflation has picked up gradually too. However, that has much to do with the disproportionately heavy weighting of energy in the US consumer basket. This has kept a lid on inflation, but the lid could be quickly blown off if oil prices recover.

Oil, which has been another thorn in the side of the market, has added to fears that the commodity slump could deflate prices.

The deflationary pressures caused by low oil prices can act like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it could dampen company profits and wages. After all, it is not easy to raise prices or wages when inflation is almost non-existent. Low oil prices could also delay projects associated with oil exploration. A number of these major projects have already been shelved or jettisoned entirely.

But low oil prices can be good news for consumers and also for countries that are net importers of energy. In the US, petrol prices are now within a whisker of their lowest mark of US$2 a gallon (3.79 litres), last seen in 2009.

In Britain, petrol prices have fallen to below £1 a litre for the first time in five years.

The cut in energy costs, while troubling for some, has effectively transferred money from energy producers to consumers. It is estimated that the transfer could be worth US$1.5 trillion (S$2.1 trillion) a year. The seismic event, while it might only be short-lived, is effectively a tax cut for every person. It increases their disposal income almost instantaneously.

Disposable income is something that China is banking on to drive a structural reform of its economy. Unquestionably, China's transition from a fast-growing, export-led economy to a slower-growing, consumer-led society has been painful. It has disrupted many neighbouring economies that have depended on China's insatiable demand for commodities and raw materials. But China's slowdown means it now needs fewer of those things. For instance, China's reduced demand for iron ore and coal has hurt mining companies from Australia to Brazil.

But China's transition also opens up a wealth of opportunities for those companies that can recognise and appreciate the demands of its new consumers. That presents an exciting prospect for the many consumer-focused businesses around the world. So, as one door closes, another opens, in much the same way that as one stock market year ends, another begins.

Consequently, it is important not to be too negative. There are many companies that can do well, not just in 2016 but in the years that follow. You just have to look for them.

• This is a regular monthly column on stocks and investing by David Kuo, chief executive officer of The Motley Fool Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'Could markets fly in 2016?'. Print Edition | Subscribe