With signs of a bear market in U.S. stocks emerging, some of the world's biggest investors say the buying opportunity is not here yet and instead believe further drops of 10 to 20 percent are a possibility.
However, they do not envision a repeat of a 2008-style crash, even if stocks are in for more pain in coming months.
The triple whammy of an economic slowdown in China, the Federal Reserve's move to raise interest rates that began in December and an expected decline in U.S. profits for a second straight quarter have intensified fears of a recession. They say it will keep the pain going in struggling equity, credit and commodities markets.
"We have the risk that stocks could go down another 10 percent or 15 percent from here. The big uncertainty now is China," said Scott Minerd, global chief investment officer at Guggenheim Partners, which has $240 billion in assets under management.
Just two weeks into the new year, the S&P 500 has already lost more than 8 percent in one of the worst starts to a year in history. Oil has fallen below $30 a barrel, and expectations for economic growth have dropped. Barclays expects just 0.7 percent U.S. growth for the fourth quarter.
The daily drum beat of weak data and conflicting signals from China, where regulators are trying to manage capital flight and devaluation of the yuan while maintaining local investors' confidence in the Chinese equity market, has been a heavy contributor to investors' fears.
As they have turned more cautious, the average yield on high-yield bonds has jumped, rising to 9.1 percent this week from 5.7 percent in January 2014. Yields on triple-C bonds, which are among the lowest-rated credits, were approaching 17 percent this week, Barclays said.
Oil prices, which have roiled high-yield bonds, continued their slide this week and crude futures dropped below $30 a barrel for the first time in more than a decade. Concerns remain that a global supply glut will keep gains muted, particularly as sanctions against Iran are lifted and it resumes exporting oil.
"Remember how everyone felt when the market dropped over 350 points just yesterday? You'll feel more scared before mid-year," said Jeffrey Gundlach, who runs DoubleLine Capital.
He does not see a 2008-scenario repeating itself. "It is always different," he said. "But it's bad."
Gundlach said the stock and credit markets will struggle during the first half of this year but a good buying opportunity will occur later in 2016.
The S&P 500 is currently 12 percent below its closing high of 2,130.82 reached in May. The small-cap Russell 2000 is more than 23 percent lower, putting it in bear-market territory.
Veteran short-seller Bill Fleckenstein said the downward trajectory in the stock market began when the Fed's bond-buying program ended in October 2014.
"This is definitely a bear market," he said. "They don't usually put a neon sign that says, 'Get the hell out of town.'"
S&P 500 earnings are forecast to have dropped 4.7 percent in the fourth quarter. That would be the second-straight quarterly decline, Thomson Reuters data shows, which would meet the common definition of a profit recession. When final reports are tallied, S&P 500 companies are expected to show zero profit growth for all of 2015.
Profit growth of 7.5 percent is forecast for 2016, but that estimate is down from Oct. 1, when it stood at 10.3 percent.
The Federal Reserve is taking notice. St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard said on Thursday the rout on global oil markets has caused a "worrisome" drop in U.S. inflation expectations that may make further rate hikes hard to justify. New York Fed President William Dudley on Friday also said there were concerns that the inflation outlook becomes "unanchored to the downside."
"What we will most likely see is the markets starting to price in the fact that the Fed can't be that effective and there will be a gradual grind, but not the forced-selling compounded by more forced-selling that we saw in 2008," said Greg Jensen, the co-CIO and co-CEO of Bridgewater, the world's largest hedge fund, with $155 billion in assets.
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