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The S&P 500 Is Within Striking Distance Of Its Best Year Since 1997

U.S. stocks continue to notch record highs in the wake of a limited U.S.-China trade deal announced last week and as economic data from job gains to housing starts suggest that the American economy is holding up nicely in the fourth quarter of 2019.

In fact, the S&P 500 index is having such a great run that it has an outside chance of surpassing its 2013 performance, and notching its best calendar-year gains since 1997.

“It may not be a high probability, but this could happen,” said JJ Kinahan, chief market strategist for TD Ameritrade, adding that options activity showed the market was placing a 13% chance that the S&P 500 will end the year at 3,250, and a 23% chance that it would surpass that level sometime between now and the end of the year.

The S&P 500 would need to close above 3,248.87 on Dec. 31 in order to beat 2013’s 29.6% advance, or a 1.8% rise from Wednesday’s close, according to Dow Jones Market Data. If it does so, that would mark the large-cap index’s best calendar-year performance since 1997, when it gained 31%.

For context, 1997 was the year the movie “Titanic” debuted in the theaters and Elton John’s remake of “Candle in the Wind” — rewritten to commemorate Princess Diana after her death that August — was the best selling single of the year; music you couldn’t have streamed on Spotify or even downloaded on Napster, which was still about two years from invention.

It was also the year before the American polity was embroiled in its last impeachment saga, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal that catalyzed President Clinton’s impeachment wouldn’t become public until January of 1998.

And it was so long ago that it was even possible for a human to beat a computer in chess, though by May of 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer had proven its supremacy by beating then world-champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match.

History gives reasons to believe the S&P 500 can eke out the gains it needs to surpass 2013, given the gains typically seen in stocks in the final week of the year.

Since 1950, the S&P 500 index has gained an average of 1.3% in the final five days of the trading year and first two of the next, a phenomenon known as the Santa Claus rally.

“Without bad news, we could absolutely continue this rally into the end of the year,” Kinahan said. “A lot of fund managers are chasing returns because it’s been a great year.”