Big investors see lousy U.S. environment but no 2008-style collapse

S&P 500 has already lost more than 8% this year

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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.

A trader works on the main trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the opening bell of the trading session in New York, January 15, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
A trader works on the main trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the opening bell of the trading session in New York, January 15, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“This has been a rough start. It is the worst beginning of the equities market ever, in the history of the stock market, to be down at this number this early on,” said David Spano, president and chief executive officer of Elm Grove-based Annex Wealth Management.

Local Fortune 500 companies are feeling the burn, with the following declines since the start of the year:

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  • Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup Inc., down 11.2 percent to $74.86.
  • Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc., down 11.4 percent to $91.00.
  • Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc., down 11.7 percent to $34.87.
  • Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Inc., down 9.7 percent to $40.97.

However, experts 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.

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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.

“I think everybody should put this in perspective,” Spano said. “China slowing down, it means going from 10 percent growth in China to 5 to 6 percent. We would do somersaults in the street if we had 5 to 6 percent GDP growth in this country.”

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As investors 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.

“I think what the market is looking for is for oil to bottom out,” Spano said “If it finds a bottom, that will at least give the market a sign that the bleeding is over.”

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.

But Spano said there are several reasons for optimism.

“We understand China, oil and the Federal Reserve are risks, but we also understand that we have positive GDP, which means we avoid a recession, we have low interest rates, which is good for the consumer, we have low gas prices…and lastly, consumer sentiment is high,” he said.

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.'”

Spano said it’s likely the Fed will slow down the pace of its interest rate hikes this year, probably reducing the number of raises from four to two.

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.

The U.S. stock markets are closed today for observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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