Wall Street Strategists Are Cautious About This Fall. Why They’re Worried.

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The floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

A pair of Wall Street strategists have just come out with cautious outlooks for stocks this fall. They’re joining a growing chorus.

The macro markets experts are as bullish as ever on the ongoing economic recovery, but much less so on equities. Federal Reserve tapering, political drama, and pricey valuations could all trip up the stock market this fall.

Andrew Sheets, chief cross-asset strategist at Morgan Stanley, sees a “bumpy” next few months, and consequently has downgraded U.S. stocks to the equivalent of Sell. And Savita Subramanian, head of U.S. equity and quantitative strategy at BofA Securities, published a pair of S&P 500 targets that imply near-term losses and an at-best flat market through the end of next year.

“Investor sentiment and valuations are extended—a lot of optimism is already priced in—and our Long-Term Valuation Model indicates negative returns for the S&P 500 over the next decade (-0.8% annualized returns) for the first time since the Tech Bubble,” she writes.

Subramanian expects the S&P 500 to fall to 4250 at the end of this year, down about 6% from current levels around 4500. She sees the index rebounding to 4600 by the end of 2022, which would be a gain of barely 2% from today. 

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Subramanian’s measure of investor sentiment—a contrarian indicator—is signaling euphoria, right when she’s beginning to worry about profit margins and earnings growth. She points to supply-chain disruptions and inflation in wages and input costs as coming headwinds to profitability. Add to that: Interest rates are likely to be higher rather than lower in the coming year—weighing on valuation multiples—and there’s not much for Subramanian to like on the S&P 500 index level.

Sheets expects the Fed to announce its plans to begin reducing monthly asset purchases later this month, and for officials to also update their so-called “dot plot” of future interest-rate forecasts to show a faster-than-expected pace of hikes. Those should drive Treasury yields higher, Sheets argues, putting pressure on U.S. stocks.

Congressional wrangling over traditional and “social” infrastructure bills—and potential higher corporate and personal taxes—will produce some negative headlines in the coming weeks. And economic and earnings growth rates have likely already peaked for the current cycle, Sheets writes.

Going forward, there are two ways he sees things going: More fiscal stimulus, less Covid-19, and continued rapid U.S. economic growth would encourage the Fed to tighten policy, pushing yields higher and stocks lower. Alternatively, slowing growth would be a challenge to pricey stocks, and could prompt a “growth scare” selloff.

Either way, the implication is for negative stock-market returns, and Sheets prefers European and Japanese equities to the S&P 500. Morgan Stanley strategists have a mid-2022 S&P 500 target of 4225, down about 6% from here.

“This is a normal dilemma,” Sheets writes. “After the initial post-recession bounce, growth usually moderates. An improving economy usually brings more cost pressure and inflation as demand rises and labour markets tighten. It usually means central banks shift to tighten policy.”

That’s not to say that an economic recession is on the horizon or that earnings will fall. It’s just a new phase in the cycle, and one in which the average stock doesn’t perform as well.

Subramanian agrees: “This environment is bullish for interest rates, inflation, and companies geared to U.S. economic growth,” she writes. “We see several areas of the market as well-positioned despite our more cautious outlook on equities: buy inflation-protected yield, and U.S. small caps.”

Small caps tend to do well when economic growth is strong, and Subramanian sees potential benefits from greater infrastructure spending by the government and capex investment from companies in the coming year. Plus, cheaper relative valuations than large caps make small caps less of a lift.

The small-cap Russell 2000 index currently trades for about 29 times its estimated earnings over the next 12 months, versus its average of about 27.5 times over the past 25 years, according to data from Bloomberg. That compares with the S&P 500 at more than 22 times forward earnings today and a long-term average around 17 times.

Inflation-protected yield means dividend-growth stocks. “Bonds offer yield with no inflation protection, commodities offer inflation exposure but no yield,” Subramanian writes. “Stocks sit in the middle: earnings, unlike bond yields, are nominal and grow with inflation.”

In particular, Subramanian likes dividend-growth stocks in sectors like energy, financials, and materials which stand to benefit from a growing economy and faster-than-average inflation.

Those could include Bank of America (ticker: BAC), Citigroup (C), Newmont (NEM), EOG Resources (EOG), or Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD), according to a Barron’s screen for dividend-growth stocks in those industries.

Write to Nicholas Jasinski at nicholas.jasinski@barrons.com