By Mike Dolan
LONDON (Reuters) - If both the perma-bears and perma-bulls are wrong in their immovable convictions about the long-term global investment outlook, then 2012 may require a more agile beast and possibly one with both claws and hooves.
For all the outsize macroeconomic risks and the depressive effects of unwinding debts, markets have made an eye-catching rebound this year on the back of unprecedented monetary pumping by central banks and a still-powerful private business cycle.
But the likely persistence of these opposing forces mean it's just as hard to retain faith in this rally as it was believing last autumn's funk would be endless. To return to the market beast analogy, the sheep at least should be careful.
"Perma-bulls can just sit back and relax - at least until it all changes," ING's Chief International Economist Rob Carnell reckons, urging caution in assuming this year's rally in risk assets from equity to emerging markets will persist.
The skepticism is widespread.
In a paper entitled "Deja Vu," HSBC global economist Karen Ward says there will be no sustained recovery in western economies until real household incomes - stagnant for five years and making it harder to pay off debt - start to pick up.
And, as with 2011, political and policy deadlock on both sides of the Atlantic remains largely unresolved, she added.
"There are undoubtedly some green shoots evident in the global economy. But we are acutely aware that we have been here before, with such rampant enthusiasm early last year."
Asset markets in 2012:
Volatility and risk: http://link.reuters.com/fab56s
Hedge funds in 2011 and 2012: http://link.reuters.com/tuv93s
BULLS, BEARS, SHEEP, WOLVES?
So, if last year's rally and swoon - or perhaps even several mini versions of that - is a template for 2012, is it time for more tactical investment "wolves" perhaps?
Adopting a deliberately counter-intuitive strategy over the past six months would have worked nicely, reinforcing some funds' favored counter-trade of locking into risk as volatility spikes and vice versa.
Buying Italian 10-year debt with yields over 7 percent at the height of the euro zone panic in December, for example, would have earned you more than 11 percent to date.
Buying Wall St stocks in October as talk of double-dip U.S. recession and even depression was all the rage would since have notched up more than 20 percent - weirdly pushing the S&P 500 into technical "bull market" territory.
But is the U.S. economy, with a jobless rate still over eight percent and government debt heading to more than 110 percent of gross domestic product, fully rebooted in a sustainable upswing?
Is the euro crisis in all its messy complexity really over and Italy's debt sustainability assured?
A reasonable answer to both is "probably not."
Continued pressure on Greek and Portuguese bonds in January and 10-year U.S. Treasury yields below 2 percent suggest it was the month was not all blinkered enthusiasm.
For sure, a decent rebound in the United States economy this winter has been significant, as has China's modest slowdown. And the European Central Bank's near half trillion euros of cheap 3-year banking loans was decisive in neutralizing the global threat of a euro banking and sovereign debt meltdown for now.
What's more, ECB plans for another injection of potentially similar magnitude on February 29 means most expect the feelgood factor to last until then and possibly see out the quarter.
Percival Stanion, head of asset allocation at Baring Asset Management's Global Multi-Asset Group, said his funds are "risk on" for the first time in over a year and have upgraded cyclically-sensitive emerging market equity as well as energy, industrial and financial stocks at the expense of cash, Australian government bonds and defensive sectors.
But he said this shift is all to do with taking advantage of excessive market pessimism and positioning.
"Despite this, we are not of the belief that we are heading into a new bull market. This is a tactical move that may last only a matter of months, but we expect to see a sharp upward move in markets over this timeframe," said Stanion.
So what happens from there?
"This could be one of the few opportunities to generate significant returns this year, as the longer-term threats have not gone away and we could well find ourselves back in defensive mode by the second half of 2012," Stanion added.
The environment appears to be ideal for hedge funds or the more mainstream "absolute return" funds, who aim to grow or preserve capital with active hedge fund-style strategies.
Even though the market upswing has left these funds in fine fettle so far this year, they had an awful 2011 as the lack of momentum and clear trends undermined many strategies.
But that's an environment to which investors will likely have to grow accustomed - dodging the intense and often unpredictable headwinds of deleveraging and western ageing while catching periodic updrafts from monetary authorities.
Giant global bond fund Pimco reckons the key may be the extent to which emergency liquidity injections actually enter the economy rather than sloshing back onto deposit with central banks or being ferreted away in government bonds, due either to a lack of loan demand or banks' fear of more risky lending.
"Investors in 2012 therefore mustn't become entranced by the very considerable reflation attempts that will likely be delivered by the world's central banks this year. The efficacy of policy actions too must be considered," Pimco told clients.
So, bulls, bears, sheep or wolves? Given such an unprecedented constellation of risks, it's probably wise not to be perma anything.
(Editing by Ruth Pitchford)