Amid the normal consensus of bullish calls for stocks in 2016, evidence is mounting that Wall Street strategists are losing their resolve as everything from China to oil and interest rates roil markets.
Just five weeks into 2016, seven of the 21 strategists tracked by Bloomberg have lowered their projections for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index amid a rout that wiped more than $2 trillion from prices. The cuts have reduced the average annual estimate, the first time that’s happened this early in a year since the Iraq war in 2003.
Trepidation among forecasters renowned for their unabashed bullishness adds to worries at a time when surprises are piling up, from the worst January in seven years to repeated bank stock selloffs and wild swings in the price of oil. The gap between the highest and lowest strategist estimate has swelled to 325 points, the biggest spread at this point since 2012.
“The reason there’s more divergence among forecasters is that equity strategists have a huge problem with predicting two wild cards right now: China and oil,” said Michael Purves, chief global strategist at Weeden & Co. in Greenwich, Connecticut. “We obviously need earnings growth, but that’s oil-dependent, and China is a huge sentiment factor and a global growth contributor. Central banks can take the edge off a little bit but they can’t directly address the two.”
The S&P 500 is down 8 percent in 2016, the worst start to a year since 2008. Investors have been troubled by a decline in crude, which has slipped 50 percent since June, and are concerned about China’s economic slowdown spilling into the rest of the world. Losses in the index have been deepest in 2016 for companies with low credit quality.
Corporate earnings also failed to provide relief, with S&P 500 companies on pace to see profit contraction for a third straight quarter. Earnings in the index will slide 4.5 percent for the 2015 fiscal fourth quarter, according to economist estimates compiled by Bloomberg.
Seven firms have responded with cuts to their year-end targets, including Canaccord Genuity Inc.’s Tony Dwyer, who was previously Wall Street’s biggest bull. On Jan. 26, Dubravko Lakos-Bujas, head of U.S. equity strategy at JPMorgan Chase & Co., cut the firm’s 2016 forecast by 9.1 percent, citing the potentially negative effect of heightened market volatility on the economy and earnings.
The median forecast of strategists surveyed by Bloomberg see the S&P 500 ending 2016 at 2,175, 16 percent above its closing price on Friday. The consensus estimate was 2,245 as recently as Nov. 30.
Tobias Levkovich, Citigroup Inc.’s chief U.S. equity strategist, says the S&P 500 could fall as low as 1,870, another 0.5 percent below its current level. While the market has already approached that level once, closing at 1,859.33 on Jan. 20, he sees another dip possible as long as investors remain concerned about economic growth in China and highly correlated trading between stocks and oil.
“The toughest problem for people to deal with is oil getting linked with the market,” said Levkovich, who has a year- end forecast of 2,150. “Another one of the biggest risks is with China, with people really worried that it goes through a ‘hard landing.’ We don’t have a singular way to kill these threats.”
Levkovich’s 2016 price target is 150 points lower than that of John Stoltzfus, the New York-based chief market strategist at Oppenheimer & Co., who has the second most-bullish estimate compiled by Bloomberg. While Stoltzfus predicts more stock declines in the short-term, he sees a rebound coming in the next couple of months.
“Oil has to stabilize, there’s just no doubt about it,” said Stoltzfus. “Overall, cheaper energy for longer is a good thing for both the U.S. and global economies. We would anticipate that any kind of a rebound would likely begin sometime in the second quarter, then carry forth.”
In addition to Oppenheimer, at least five of the firms tracked are on the record calling for the S&P 500 to keep falling from its level now only to rebound by year’s end. Among them are Bank of Montreal’s Brian Belski or Weeden & Co.’s Purves, both of whom see the gauge losing another 100 points before reversing course.
Growing doubt is a departure from the past two years, when strategists mainly stuck to their bullish predictions. The optimism proved prescient in 2014, as the index rallied 16 percent from February to December. In 2015, stocks erased the first-month loss in February to reach all time-high by May, only to plunge 12 percent through August. Stocks ended last year with the worst performance of the bull market, some 8 percent below where strategists had predicted in January.
“People don’t know whether things are OK and the market will bounce back, or if things are beginning to soften,” said John Carey, a Boston-based fund manager at Pioneer Investment Management Inc., which oversees about $230 billion. “People see market turbulence like this and get concerned about what the market might be saying about the economy.”
Even with the souring of sentiment this year, the average strategist target remains bullish, implying a 12 percent increase from the S&P 500’s close on Jan. 29. In fact, the gap between the index’s level and the average of analyst targets has grown, as the index has fallen faster than strategists have cut.
At the trough of the January selloff, the projection was 357 points higher than the index, a spread that’s been exceeded only at the bottom of the last two bear markets, according to data compiled by Bloomberg that goes back to 1999.
“Strategists eventually capitulated and followed the market lower” in 2001 and 2008, Michael Shaoul, chief executive officer at Marketfield Asset Management LLC in New York, wrote in a note Thursday. “A universe of two hardly makes an unbreakable rule, but there are an increasing number of similarities between the current state of markets and those in the early stages of prior long and powerful declines.”
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