Wall Street's stock forecasters see the bull market stretching to one more year

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Wall Street firms’ equity strategists see stocks posting gains for at least one more year as earnings grind higher and the U.S. economy approaches its longest expansion since before the U.S. Civil War.

Many strategists, including Bank of America’s Savita Subramanian and Goldman Sachs’s David Kostin noted that investors may become more worried about the risk of an economic recession as the year goes on, front-loading the gains for the year.

Still, the median strategist sees the benchmark S&P 500 index climbing to 3,000 by December 2019, implying more than 15 percent upside from current levels.

To be sure, strategists’ forecasts are getting further and further away as the recent drop in stocks is making the targets appear more bullish than their outlooks suggest. The Dow has posted intraday swings of 250 points or more (about 1 percent) in 44 of the 54 days of the fourth quarter amid a spike in volatility that’s making it more difficult to forecast.

On a sector-by-sector basis, Wall Street’s strategists still favor beaten-down information technology, health-care and financial services stocks. The sector should offer investors “superior growth” in the new year, while the recent sell-off has decoupled the tech stocks from a crowded momentum trade, J.P. Morgan strategist Dubravko Lakos-Bujas told clients.

“Technology also possesses lower sensitivity to macro factors (e.g. rate, USD, oil) and should continue to benefit from elevated buyback activity,” Lakos-Bujas added. “Such characteristics are typically sought after by investors in late cycle. We overweight Consumer Discretionary as a direct beneficiary of an expanding labor market and wage increases with some incremental upside from potential trade resolution.”

For her part, RBC chief strategist Lori Calvasina wrote that she’s staying overweight on health care while underweight utilities and REITs.

“Healthcare has the highest 2019 composite score based on: 1) outperformance at this stage of the cycle, 2) better margin trends, 3) little tariff risk, 4) dividend upside, and 5) solid growth and momentum,” she said in a note.

Real estate, consumer staples and utilities were among the least favor sectors across Wall Street.

Among the most bearish strategists was Morgan Stanley’s Michael Wilson, who doubled down on his bearish 2018 call with a Street-low forecast for 2019. Wilson, who has often warned clients that he believes stocks are in a rolling bear market, sees the S&P 500 adding just 5.6 percent by the end of 2019 and finishing at 2,750.

“After a roller coaster ride in 2018 driven by tighter financial conditions and peaking growth, we expect another range-bound year driven by disappointing earnings and a Fed that pauses,” Wilson wrote on Nov. 26. “We think there is a greater than 50 percent chance we experience a modest earnings recession in 2019.”

As the S&P 500 was posting its worst monthly losses in about seven years in October, Wilson broke with many strategists and firms who believed the market rout would be short-lived. At the time, Wilson wrote in a note, “The rolling bear market continues to make progress and there is growing evidence that it is morphing into a proper cyclical bear market.” He was defining a “bear market” in terms of many stocks down 20 percent from recent highs, not the indexes.

As early as Dec. 20, 2017, Wilson was one of the most bearish stock strategists on 2018 performance. Wilson has stood by his initial S&P 500 call of 2,750 for year-end 2018 throughout the past 12 months, making no adjustments to that price forecast. That target makes him the most accurate strategist tracked by CNBC over the past year.

The S&P 500 closed Friday at 2,599.95, 5.5 percent below Wilson’s target.

Fears that the Federal Reserve could raise short-term rates too quickly — paired with downward revisions to GDP growth — caused a partial inversion the yield curve earlier this month, a phenomenon often viewed as a recession prognostication.

For 2019, economists polled by CNBC and Moody’s Analytics showed economists expect a growth pace of 2.4 percent. The economists in the rapid update survey see fourth quarter growth between 2.7 percent and 3.1 percent. Tracking forecasts for GDP take into account incoming data and are updated frequently.

Deutsche Bank’s Binky Chadha, meanwhile, was the biggest bull of the surveyed group, predicting 25 percent upside to the S&P 500 from current levels and finishing next year at 3,250.

While Chadha acknowledged that a 3.7 percent unemployment rate would suggest a late business cycle, he pointed to a variety of other factors to conclude that the bull market may actually be fairly young.

“All other fundamental indicators, ranging from inflation or cost pressures generated by the limited slack, the cyclical components of demand, confidence, corporate and household leverage, delinquencies and default rates, bank lending standards and earnings, suggest mid- or in some cases even early cycle,” he wrote in November.

The strategist also addressed growing interest rate concerns, which have hamstrung the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the past two months and reacquainted traders with more normal levels of volatility. Both indexes traded in correction territory Friday, down more than 10 percent from recent highs.

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