Wall Street isn’t partying like it’s 1999 again–not yet, at least. But as the economy and stock market continue to awaken from their post-bubble blowout, a wide majority of the eight sages who make up Investment Advisor’s market strategy panel think that the recovery rally of 2003 will sustain itself well into the New Year.
Our fearless forecasters see continued low inflation, modest increases in short-term interest rates, if any at all, and strong GDP growth. On average, they figure the Dow Jones Industrials will finish 2004 at 10,521. While that would mean a slowdown from the 20%-plus gain the Dow and Standard & Poor’s 500 both recorded in 2003, it still would represent a decent increase of more than 5%. Excluding perennially bearish advisor A. Gary Shilling’s forecast of an 8,000 Dow, in fact, our panel sees the Dow ending the year around 10,881. Argues Gary Thayer of A.G. Edwards & Sons: “We are encouraged by what we are seeing as far as economic growth prospects and earnings trends.”
The pundits’ 2004 forecast is all the more encouraging in that most of the panel nailed last year’s Dow and GDP numbers nicely. As of mid-December it looked as if only two members–Shilling and Anthony Chan of Banc One Investment Advisors–missed the Dow returning to 10,000 for the first time in a year and a half. More panel members found themselves too conservative on high tech, as the Nasdaq roared back 40%, and missed the big decline in the value of the dollar against the euro and Japanese yen. “The fundamentals” of the U.S. economy “have been so exceptional,” explains Chan, who adds that most forecasters were surprised to see the Bush Administration allow Treasury Secretary John Snow to suggest he wouldn’t mind “a little bit more weakness” in the U.S. currency.
But a weaker dollar could provide the fillip the manufacturing sector needs to continue working its way out of distress. Both Thayer and Lincoln Anderson of LPL Financial, for example favor basic materials stocks in ’04 as a way to play this recovery. And a number of panelists believe that technology stocks will show more gains as the year unfolds. Yet Sam Stovall of S&P maintains the broad market is not overvalued. He notes that 2004 estimated price/earnings ratios for the S&P 500 are back to 20 for operating and 23 for reported profits. That, he says, is well within the 15-year average for both and “certainly nowhere near bubble valuations.”
One political note: Seven of the eight panel members think the White House will remain in Republican hands come November (only Richard Bernstein of Merrill Lynch abstained).–W.G.
Merrill Lynch & Co.
Richard Bernstein, a quantitative investor and the Thundering Herd’s chief U.S. strategist, says he prefers to speak for the entire Merrill Lynch strategy and economics department. For 2004, he–and his Merrill research colleagues–come off as moderate bulls on equities. But he differs with many other pundits in maintaining that the U.S. economy and corporate profits will slow this year. “The economy is later in the cycle than many believe,” he cautions, adding that China’s furious rush to add manufacturing capacity threatens to cast “a deflationary black cloud” over the world.
Bernstein observes that as 2003 drew to a finish, late-cycle stock groups, such as materials and energy, were already beginning to lead the market. Of the two groups, however, he is more inclined to recommend buying energy stocks. Bernstein reasons that mutual funds are “distinctly” underweighted in both the energy and utility sectors. He further believes that energy stocks in particular are undervalued relative to materials. One possible reason is that many traders have tended to shun the energy sector because of its chronic underinvestment.
Bernstein is also eyeing consumer staples as another typical late-cycle outperformer. But he warns against going into consumer discretionary stocks as well as technology issues, which roared back to life in 2003. “They are overvalued, high-beta sectors in which the fundamentals are far worse than most investors realize,” he says.–W.G.
Banc One Investment Advisors
Like Richard Bernstein of Merrill Lynch, Anthony Chan, chief economist at Banc One Investment Advisors, thinks U.S. corporate profits will moderate in 2004–perhaps showing an increase of 12%, versus 18% in ’03. But he adds that still will leave profits at “impressive” levels at a time when the U.S. economy is in “the earliest stages of expansion.” As a result, Chan sees the Dow Jones industrials remaining well above 10,000 through 2004.
A former Federal Reserve economist who remains a dedicated Fed-watcher, Chan thinks the U.S. central bank will raise interest rates by 25 to 50 basis points sometime in the second half as the economy continues to gain steam. That could dim the allure of financial stocks, he thinks. But he sees plenty of opportunities in other areas. “The energy industry,” he notes, “doesn’t do well in the early stages of a bull market. But as it ages, energy tends to do better.”
Chan also favors health care issues for 2004, but thinks the dollar will remain in the dumps, trading at 91 cents against the euro. After years of publicly stating its preference for a strong dollar, he observes, the White House has lately begun to alter its course. Now, he says, the Bush Administration has given every impression that it will tolerate “a little more weakness rhetoric” from Treasury Secretary John Snow–something that would have been strictly forbidden under President Bill Clinton or during George W. Bush’s previous years in office.–W.G.
Standard & Poor’s Corp.
With the broad market rising more than 20% in 2003, Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist for Standard & Poor’s Corp., says it’s hard to argue that stocks are at “bargain basement” levels anymore. But neither are they especially dear. He figures that 2004 estimated price/earnings ratios for the S&P 500 come in around 20 for operating and 23 for reported profits. That, he says, is well within the 15-year average for both and “certainly nowhere near bubble valuations.”
Indeed, Stovall says that if one were to value the stock market on earnings alone, it would not be hard to come up with a year-end reading of more than 1,200 for the S&P 500, a gain of nearly 20% over its late-2003 level. Earnings in the materials sector alone should rise 57% in 2004, he says, with technology not far behind at 51% and health care registering a strong 23% advance. Indeed, high tech remains Stovall’s favorite stock sector for ’04. By contrast he is dim on utilities, which he expects to eke out an average 4% earnings gain this year. “The sector is dominated by electric companies that, in general, are fairly slow growers,” he says.
Stovall says the U.S. economy has plenty of steam left. Tax cuts continue to bolster confidence, he says, and “the consumer will continue to spend.” And while the Federal Reserve could push up short-term interest rates slightly in June, Stovall thinks its message will be more a reminder that it remains vigilant against inflation than an aggressive shift to tighten credit.–W.G.
Although she sees stocks rising in 2004, Gail Dudack, chief investment strategist at SunGard Institutional Brokerage Inc., thinks “the market will have a hard time finding much traction.” She feels that traders have already discounted a further economic recovery and gains in corporate profits and instead will focus more on the Federal Reserve.
Dudack expects to see increases in both employment and corporate spending, and believes Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan will react by midyear, pushing the Federal Funds rate up by 120 basis points over a six- to eight-month period. Still, that will only take Fed policy from expansionary to neutral–hardly enough to sandbag a recovery on the eve of a presidential election.