The 2012 year has got off to a great start with the benchmark NZX 50 Gross Index rising 7.2 per cent over the first three months and the ASX 200 Accumulation (gross) Index ahead 8.4 per cent.
However, the ASX index increased only 4.3 per cent in New Zealand dollar terms because of the strong performance of the kiwi dollar against the aussie dollar.
In the rest of the world, the MSCI World Gross Index, which covers 24 developed country markets, appreciated 11.3 per cent.
The best performing markets, in MSCI gross terms (capital plus dividends), were Japan up 19.1 per cent, Germany 18.0 per cent, Belgium 16.0 per cent, Singapore 15.7 per cent and Denmark 15.4 per cent.
The worst performing markets were Spain down 5.5 per cent and Portugal off 0.9 per cent. Canada was up only 4.6 per cent, United Kingdom 4.7 per cent and Israel 5.4 per cent.
Interestingly, the eurozone markets were up 9.2 per cent, a remarkable performance given the economic problems in the area. It was not far behind emerging markets, which appreciated 10.8 per cent during the first quarter.
The best performing global sectors, according to MSCI, were information technology, consumer discretion and financials.
The IT sector has had a particularly strong run in the United States with a 50 per cent surge in Apple's share price accounting for one-seventh of the 14 per cent rise in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.
Interest in initial public offerings (IPOs) also increased, particularly in the IT sector. At the end of the quarter Millennial Media listed on the New York Stock Exchange at $25 a share, nearly twice its IPO price of $13.
Millennial Media, which is based in Baltimore, develops advertising for mobile devices.
The Facebook IPO will be one of the highlights this quarter with recent private sales valuing the social media company in excess of US$100 billion.
The consumer discretionary sector has also had a good start to the year, particularly the automotive sector, leisure and sporting goods and internet-related products.
The world's equity markets have had a positive three months because after five difficult years the world is awash in liquidity as central banks have adopted aggressive monetary easing policies.
There are clear signs that the United States economy is improving as automobile sales are surging, the housing market has stabilised, unemployment is falling and consumers are showing a higher propensity to spend rather than save.
Europe also seems to have stabilised and although the sharemarkets of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland had a positive quarter, they are well below mid-2007 levels.
Investors are also looking at emerging markets in a positive light even though there is considerable uncertainty whether China is in for a soft or a hard economic landing.
The ASX had its best three-month period since the September 2010 quarter, though the mining sector lagged because of concerns about China. Financials had a good quarter in line with worldwide trends.
The NZX also had an outstanding three months with a number of companies continuing their excellent performance of the previous nine months (see table). These include Diligent Board Member Services, Xero, AWF (formerly Allied Work Force), NZX and Telecom.
Diligent and Xero are benefiting from worldwide demand for internet companies. Both have high valuations, mainly because offshore investors believe that they have huge scalability.
Trade Me has attracted overseas interest as its share price appreciated 18 per cent in the March quarter.
internet companies can be high risk but they also offer huge upside potential. A year ago Diligent's share price was only 78c and Xero's $2.50.
The NZX is often criticised for its lack of opportunities but twelve months ago, this column identified six companies worth looking at. These were A2 Corporation, Burger Fuel, Diligent, Ecoya, Pacific Edge and Xero. A2 was then trading at just 13c but is not included in the accompanying table because it is not listed on the main boards of the NZX. Burger Fuel was only 35c, Ecoya 75c and Pacific Edge 28c.
All six companies continue to have good prospects, albeit unproven in most cases, as they have aggressive offshore expansion plans.
Seeka Kiwifruit, Pumpkin Patch and Fisher & Paykel Appliances all had reasonable share price recoveries in the March quarter following disappointing performances in recent years.
Telecom shareholders have benefited from the split from Chorus with the latter having a 19 per cent return in the latest quarter. This clearly demonstrates that investors can react positively to poorly performing companies after they have major recapitalisations.
NZX and AWF have also had strong share price performances over the past three-month and 12-month periods.
At the other end of the performance tables are a number of familiar companies including Guinness Peat Group (GPG), New Image, The Warehouse, Rubicon, Rakon and Tenon.
GPG has the characteristics of a classic bear trap as it always looks cheap relative to net asset value per share (NAV). It is called a bear trap because its NAV keeps coming down instead of its share price going up.
Energy Mad, the new IPO, had a poor quarter after two profit downgrades. Restaurant Brands is operating in a very competitive sector, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare has been adversely affected by the strong New Zealand dollar while Kathmandu and The Warehouse had disappointing results.
Cavalier and New Zealand Refining are two solid long-term businesses that have been negatively affected by the downturn in the house building industry and reduced refinery margins respectively.
The outlook for sharemarkets remains uncertain because of the difficulties facing many European countries and the high levels of global debt, both individual and government. In addition there are question marks over whether China will have a soft or hard economic landing.
Nevertheless the current environment, slow but steady economic growth with loose monetary policies and low interest rates, is often ideal for equity markets as investors look for higher returns and are more willing to take on risk.
This positive situation could remain as long as there are no additional economic shocks in Europe or elsewhere.
But investing in sharemarkets is all about choosing individual companies rather than picking the overall direction of the market. There will be a number of companies that perform remarkably well, and others exceptionally poorly, over the next three- and 12-month periods.
The secret to success is to pick the winning stocks and avoid the losers.
Disclosure of interest: Brian Gaynor is an executive director of Milford Asset Management which holds many of the shares mentioned in this column on behalf of clients.