The turbulent selloff that marked the start of the year for U.S. stocks may be over, but the market will still end 2016 with a whimper, posting just a modest gain, strategists polled by Reuters predicted.
Even as the U.S. economy improves, concern over weak earnings, rising U.S. interest rates and a global slowdown will hold equities back, the poll indicated.
Many respondents favored economically sensitive shares such as those in technology and energy, which was 2015’s worst-performing sector, over more defensive names.
The benchmark S&P 500 .SPX .INX is expected to end 2016 at 2,100, up 2 percent from Thursday’s close and 3 percent above the 2,043.94 it ended last year, according to the median forecast of 42 strategists polled by Reuters.
Participants are slightly less pessimistic than they were following a sharp market retreat last September.
But forecasts for the current year are down from a December poll of Reuters, when strategists predicted the benchmark index to finish 2016 at 2,207.
“We’ve come a long way back from the depths of despair six or seven weeks ago,” said Leo Grohowski, chief investment officer of BNY Mellon Wealth Management in New York.
“We think between now and the end of the year, the market grinds higher, but it’s not going to be without an uptick in volatility.”
He and other strategists cited continued earnings weakness as remaining one of the biggest worries for investors.
“Even in a gently rising rate environment, we can’t expect much in the way of (price-to-earnings) market expansion,” said Grohowski, who expects the S&P 500 to end the year at 2,150.
Analysts forecast another U.S. earnings drop in the first quarter, and see just 2 percent profit growth for S&P 500 companies for all of 2016, according to Thomson Reuters data.
That’s made stocks seem less than cheap. The forward 12-month ratio of price to earnings for the S&P 500 is 16.9, above the long-term average PE of 14.7, the data shows.
The Federal Reserve has held rates steady so far this year after a small hike in December, though a majority of Wall Street’s top banks expect the central bank to raise rates two more times by the end of the year.
Wall Street’s key concern has been that the Fed will raise rates at a quicker clip than investors are expecting.
Other worries for U.S. stock investors cited in the poll include the potential for global acts of terrorism, an impending U.S. presidential election and a strong dollar, which is a negative for multinational companies.
Concern over the dollar “is a fear that’s going to linger for a while, and it’s only going to be dispelled by hard data proving it is not serving as a huge drag on economic growth or earnings gains,” said Brian Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Asset Management.
Jacobsen has a year-end target on the S&P 500 of 2,150.
Still, Jacobsen was among poll participants who is adding to energy and technology investments, and recommending against more defensive sectors like utilities and telecommunications.
The Dow Jones industrial average is forecast to rise to 18,050 by the end of 2016, about 2 percent higher than Thursday’s close and up nearly 4 percent from 2015’s close.