Barring a catastrophic event, financial markets in the second half of 2015 are expected to progress much like they did in the first half, although the momentum for bigger profits and market gains may be shifting away from the U.S. to overseas markets. That’s because the rebound in those economies and markets have only recently begun following changes in central bank policies that slashed interest rates and devalued currencies – policies that the U.S. had adopted years ago.

Following are highlights from ThinkAdvisor’s review of midyear outlooks from a variety of financial firms, including Liz Ann Sonders and Jeffrey Kleintop of Schwab and Bill Gross of Janus Investments:

U.S. Stock Market

Bull market in U.S. stocks expected to continue

The bull market in U.S. stocks is expected to continue, even though it’s now in its seventh year and almost twice as long as the average bull market. Strategists expect single-digit gains, though a 10% correction is possible along the way. (There hasn’t been one in almost four years.)

“Although we expect a rise in volatility and higher risk of pullbacks, we believe the bull market that began in 2009 – which we characterize as a ‘secular’ bull market – is not over,” writes Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab in the firm’s midyear market outlook.

A major reason strategists expect just single-digit gains in U.S. stocks this year is valuation, which is on the rich ride. The S&P 500 is trading at a multiple that’s nearly 18 times trailing 12-month earnings, which tops the long-term post World War II average of 15 times by a pretty large margin, according to LPL. The price-to-earnings multiple based on 12-month forward earnings is 16.7 – well above the 10-year average of 14.1, according to FactSet.

After adjusting for continued low inflation and historically low interest rates, strategists appear less concerned about overvaluation of the U.S. stock market. “When one compares the P/E valuation [of the S&P 500] against the 10-year Treasury yield, we believe stocks appear meaningfully more attractive than Treasuries,” according to Wells Fargo’s 2015 midyear outlook.

Even Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen has said stock valuations are “not so high when you compare returns on equity to returns on safe assets like bonds, which are also very low,” but during that same appearance noted that  “equity valuations at this point are generally quite high” and warned about “potential dangers.” That was on May 6, when the S&P 500 was trading slightly lower than it is today.

The U.S. Economy

Economists expecting pickup, not recession

“The most important piece for the bull market to continue is the absence of a recession,” according to LPL Research’s midyear outlook.

Economists are not expecting a recession in the U.S. but rather a pickup in growth in the second half to 3% or more following a negative first quarter (the last reading was -0.2%, up from -0.7% reported previously) and expected rebound in the second quarter. For the year, U.S. GDP adjusted for inflation is expected to range between 2% and 3%, and inflation is expected to be near 1.5%.

Underpinning the U.S. economy, according to Alan Levenson, chief U.S. economist at T. Rowe Price, are “a still-easy money policy, household sector deleveraging, low gas prices, wage growth and job growth” among other items.

The Fed and Interest Rates

Fed could raise interest rates as early as September (Photo: AP)

Most strategists and economists expect the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates for the first time in nine years before the year is out and as early as September. Yellen and other Fed officials have suggested this many times but have also indicated that the rate increases will be gradual and begin when the data, according to the Fed’s latest policy statement, indicate “further improvement in the labor market” and the Fed “is reasonably confident” that inflation is moving back toward the Fed’s 2% target.

While Fed rate hikes are often considered a negative for stock and bond markets, strategists are not overly concerned about the early impact. “The direct impact of the Fed’s initial rate moves on the U.S. economy and corporate earnings is likely to be minimal,” write Chris Alderson and John Linehan in T. Rowe Price’s Global midyear market outlook. But they are concerned that the Fed’s “prolonged wait” to tighten may be have dulled investor awareness of the “substantial support that near-zero rates and historically low bond yields” have provided U.S. equity markets.

But Sonders at Schwab notes that since she expects the “the Fed to raise rates more slowly than it did in the past” — not at most consecutive policymaking meetings — the impact on the stock market will be limited.

Strategists and economists also expect that when the Fed raises rates only short-term rates, which the Fed essentially controls, long-term rates will fall or remain unchanged. This flattening of the yield curve supports long-term growth since many loans, such as mortgages, are tied to long-term rates.

Easy Money in Europe & Japan

Europe, Japan favorite foreign equity markets

Europe and Japan remain favorite foreign equity markets and, for some strategists, India as well. Easing monetary policies are underpinning these foreign markets and economies. Their central banks are cutting interest rates and purchasing government bonds to boost growth, much like the Federal Reserve did with its near-zero rate policy and quantitative easing programs — policies that many strategists believe constitute the number one underpinning of the long U.S. bull market.

While the U.S. Fed is withdrawing economic stimulus, the central banks of Europe and Japan are aggressively adding stimulus,” writes Jeffrey Kleintop, chief global investment strategist at Schwab. “This should help to sustain the economic recovery and support the stock market over the coming year.”

Europe

Lower oil prices, weaker euro supporting many European economies

In addition to ECB easing monetary policy, many European economies and markets are also supported by lower oil prices and a weaker euro, which is boosting foreign and domestic demand for European products because of the relative cheaper prices, according to Huw Pill, chief European economist of Global Investment Research at Goldman Sachs. In a midyear outlook video, he notes that after several false starts the European “cyclical recovery…has stronger legs and momentum.”

Greece, however, remains a risk for the eurozone and European markets. Many strategists expect that some sort of deal will eventually be reached between Greece and its creditors including the ECB. On Friday, however, the Greek government rejected an offer from creditors to extend a bailout deal in exchange for tax hikes and spending cuts. Eurozone finance ministers were scheduled to meet again Saturday to try again to hammer out a deal. If no deal is reached Greece could default on a 1.6 billion Euro ($1.8 billion) payment due the IMF on Tuesday.   

Japan

Bank of Japan policies, trade agreement expected to boost Japanese economy (Photo: AP)

“Japan’s economy should be get a boost from the aggressive stimulus provided by the Bank of Japan that is weakening the yen, along with potential for the approval of a new trade agreement that includes the United States,” writes Schwab’s Kleintop.

Domestic demand is also increasing in Japan, supporting the country’s economy and stock market, write T. Rowe Price portfolio managers Dean Tenerelli and Archibald Ciganer, who expect further gains in Japan. “What is not yet reflected in the market is the improved competitiveness of Japanese companies. We are witnessing this most in technology, where Japanese firms have been taking share back from South Korean competitors but also in other areas of the market.”

China

Many strategists are avoiding China for the time being

This is one foreign market that many strategists and portfolio managers are avoiding for the time being, among them Bill Gross, portfolio manager of the Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund. He has suggested selling short China’s Shenzhen index because it’s more than doubled in price this year.

“Novice investors seem to be participating a Ponzi scheme of sorts,” Gross told Barron’s recently. “The market’s path has all the characteristics of the Nasdaq 5000 in 1999. Financial assets are bubbling up, even as the Chinese economy is slowing.” China’s economy and markets are also hampered by the government’s inability to easily devalue its currency because it’s tied to the U.S. dollar, which has been appreciating.

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