Stock shocks: The world's top-performing markets

Kenneth Kiesnoski, CNBC.com

Easy money and a rising tide

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CNBC presents the 10 top-performing global stock markets for 2013. Based on a ranking of the primary indexes that CNBC tracks, the list is a mix of advanced economies and frontier/emerging markets—and a couple of countries still teetering on the brink in between. The results might puzzle those uninitiated in market mechanics, but according to at least one expert, there is indeed rhyme and reason in the seeming randomness.

Sameer Samana, senior international strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors, shared his take on the findings with CNBC. "For the most part, the real theme of this year is easy money, a rising tide, a lot of countries coming back from the brink and, then, your high-quality players that will continue to benefit from any global tailwind," he said.

By Kenneth Kiesnoski, CNBC.com
Posted: 18 Dec. 2013

10. Spain (+13.53%)

The interior of the Madrid Stock Exchange, or Bolsa y Mercado, is seen in Madrid, Spain.
Angel Navarrete | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Kicking off the list at position 10 is Spain. That might raise some eyebrows, given the country's much-reported woes since its real estate–fueled bubble burst back in 2008. Employment is stuck sky-high at some 26 percent, and growth remains sluggish. However, Spain recently emerged from recession, and ratings agencies Moody's and Standard & Poor's have raised the country's credit score.

Borrowing costs have thus come down, according to Samana, and the Eurozone—whatever its challenges—looks to be headed for a general rebound, likely taking Spain along with it. So the Bolsa de Madrid and its IBEX index are gaining strength, the latter growing 13.53 percent year-to-date.

9. Switzerland (+14.75%)

Pedestrians pass the Swiss Stock Exchange, Boerse Zuerich, in Zurich, Switzerland, on Tuesday, July 6, 2010.
Peter Frommenwiler | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Swiss are known for nothing if not reliability—and that's why investors remain enamored of the Alpine nation. The $850 billion Swiss Market Index (SMI), operated by the Zurich-based SIX Swiss Exchange, is up 14.75 percent year-to-date.

"Unfortunately, there's no really sexy story here," said Samana. "But these are the best types of countries to find: the ones that don't do well on the way down or outperform in a 'muddle-through' year and then really take off in a good year. That's kind of the best of all worlds."

8. Germany (+18.31%)

The Frankfurt Stock Exchange in Frankfurt, Germany on November 25, 2013.
Mehmet Kaman | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Germany—Europe's engine of growth and stability and the fourth-largest economy in the world—remained appealing to investors in 2013, with the Deutscher Aktienindex (DAX) posting gains of 18.31 year-to-date. Samana described Germany, along with neighboring but non-EU Switzerland, as "really high-quality countries that just happen to be surrounded by other countries that are going through some real difficulties." Large numbers of investors apparently agree.

"It's really interesting how well they've been doing," Samana added. "Other countries had to go through a lot of pain to have a good year in 2013."

7. Egypt (+20.91%)

A trader speaks on the telephone while working at the Egyptian stock exchange in Cairo, Egypt, on Tuesday, April 23, 2013.
Shawn Baldwin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WIth Egypt in political and sectarian turmoil since the Arab Spring overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, average Joes could be forgiven for wondering why investors would dream of parking their money in Cairo. Historically, the Egyptian Exchange (EGX)—formerly the Cairo and Alexandria Exchange (CASE)—has been one of the most volatile in the Middle East.

But the latest regime change—or coup d'etat, to some—led by General Adbel el-Sisi this July, along with a promised constitutional referendum set for January, has led to a sense that the country is finally stabilizing. The fortunes of the EGX/CASE, up nearly 21 percent year-to-date, reflect that impression. "To investors, I think, it at least seems like it's a more business-friendly environment," said Samana.

6. Saudi Arabia (+23.33%)

Saudi men chat outside the Saudi Stock Exchange or Tadawul in Riyadh.
AFP | Getty Images

The Tadawul, Saudi Arabia's $400 billion stock market, has been one of the world's most isolated, if profitable, exchanges—closed to direct foreign investment from outside the Gulf region for nearly four decades. Signs indicating that soon may change, and a general easing of Middle East tensions, may be behind the more than 23 percent jump in the Tadawul All-Share Index (TASI) year-to-date.

"Saudi Arabia obviously benefits from the Syrian situation calming down, as well as the Iranian situation seeming to have some daylight ahead of it," said Samana. In addition, oil prices remain elevated. "All those things are somewhat beneficial," he noted.

5. USA (+24.45%)

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
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There's no denying U.S. markets are on a roll, with the S&P 500 clocking in at 24.45 percent growth for the year. Samana calls the U.S. "the best house on a pretty OK block" this year. As the American economy strengthens, the country's stock markets look increasingly attractive to global investors.

Given the liquidity in the States,"anyone looking to get into equities more broadly on a global scale has, I think, looked into the U.S. market as maybe their first stop," said Samana. Investors, whether in Japan or the Eurozone, find what he called "additional comfort" in an improving U.S. economy and dollar, "and that's helped the U.S. move up in the rankings."

4. Greece (+27.41%)

An employee walks at the reception hall of the Athens stock exchange.
Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images

Talk about from worst to first. Or nearly. The beleaguered Greek economy, widely regarded as a basket case, boasts at least one bright spot: The Athens Stock Exchange (ASE) is up more than 27 percentage points year-to-date. As in Spain, Greece's stock is rising, thanks to its bargain-basement status in an overall improving Eurozone landscape.

"In 2012 Greece was probably one of the worst markets, but this year it's one of the best," said Samana. "That has to do with the euro bouncing back and everyone thinking that if Europe really is rebounding, then Greece—if nothing else—will go along for the ride."

3. Ireland (+27.64%)

A promotional teddy bear for the Irish Stock Exchange sits in the office at Eden Quay in Dublin, Ireland.
David Levenson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Having just exited a three-year bailout program backed by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, Ireland—a onetime "Celtic Tiger" flooded with outside investment—seems to be back on track. The government recently published a recovery plan that aims for ambitious growth (north of 3 percent annually from 2017) and a drop in unemployment to 8 percent by 2020.

Perhaps smelling an imminent rebound in the wind, investors have rewarmed to Ireland's market, with the ISEQ Overall Index of the Irish Stock Exchange in Dublin posting gains of nearly 28 percent year-to-date.

2. Japan (+48.18%)

A man is reflected in an electric quotation board flashing chart of the Nikkei index of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
Toru Yamanaka | AFP | Getty Images

Explaining the stellar performance of Japan's Nikkei and TOPIX exchanges—up more than 48 percent and 44 percent, respectively, this year—is as easy as "ABE." Just weeks after taking office in December 2012, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, instituted his economic plan, widely dubbed Abenomics. A massive program of quantitative easing that "dwarves what the U.S. has done," said Samana, it has pushed the once-stronger Japanese yen lower. (One U.S. dollar buys about 103 yen today, up from just over 83.50 a year ago.) "Because they're such a large exporter of autos and heavy manufacturing, that's really helped their equity markets," he said.

1. Argentina (+83.71%)

The Buenos Aires Stock Exchange
Diego Giudice | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Drum roll, please. Coming in at No. 1 on the list of top-performing markets in 2013 is Argentina, a counterintuitive finish—at least, perhaps, to the average person on the street. The Buenos Aires Stock Exchange MERVAL Index is up a whopping 83.71 percent year-to-date. With inflation of some 25 percent and a meddlesome government beloved of bureaucracy and bedeviled (allegedly) by corruption—among other negatives, such as slow growth and high unemployment—Buenos Aires as bourse boomtown can be a head-scratcher for some.

But Samana says it all makes sense. "The lowest-quality countries [are] doing well," he said. "That's usually what tends to happen when things are up as much as they are this year." The international equivalent of a penny stock, Argentina was "very beat up" last year and therefore is suddenly appealing to newly confident investors looking for a good deal. "Being cheap isn't enough by itself," Samana added. "You need some sort of an external catalyst to allow you to re-rate or appreciate. There was a [recalibration] … in how confident people are about the global growth picture."