While aggregate S&P 500 earnings disappointed in 2015, with little to no growth, strategists seem to be shifting from the challenges of this year to a slightly positive view for next year.
Many are saying that modestly positive earnings per share growth appears achievable.
1. S&P 500 Keeps Climbing
BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research predicts the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index to rise about 5%. Merrill’s year-end target is 2,200, up from about 2,100 now. In 10 years, Merrill sees the S&P hitting 3,500.
“Credit-sensitive investments are 2016’s biggest risks, in our view,” the firm states. “In contrast, the Standard & Poor’s 500 is the ultimate anti-credit play. It’s filled with large, liquid companies that have healthy balance sheets and above-average cash balances. We expect the S&P 500 to continue climbing next year.”
Wells Fargo sees the S&P rising even further, with a target of 2,230 to 2,330.
2. Expect Modest Earnings Growth
Strategists predict varying degrees of positivity in the New Year.
UBS expects 8% to 9% earnings growth in 2016 – predicting that the U.S. economy will “gain some momentum” as the headwinds for lower energy and the strong dollar fade.
Meanwhile, Wells Fargo sees “roughly a 6% or 7% increase” in the S&P 500 index operating earnings for 2016, projecting $130 in operating earnings per share, up from about $122 per share in 2015.
“That growth is most likely to be led by the consumer discretionary and technology sectors of the economy,” the bank says in its outlook.
While Rob Sharpes of T. Rowe Price acknowledges that “consensus estimates have projected 9% year-over-year growth in earnings per share for the companies in the S&P 500 index in 2016,” he thinks this is probably too high, given the profit recessions in energy, materials and related industries.
“Earnings growth in the mid-single digits seems attainable, assuming (as we do) that consumer spending remains robust,” he said in T. Rowe Price’s outlook. “At 15 times forward earnings, the S&P 500 appears neither expensive nor inexpensive on a historical basis, although it could be argued that U.S. equity valuations are still attractive in a context of low inflation and low interest rates.”
3. Value Beats Growth
What might catch investors by surprise next year is the return of value investing, Merrill says.
“We’ve been agnostic on the large-cap style benchmarks for several years,” its outlook states. “But when profits accelerate, value wins. Our earnings forecasts imply a five percentage-point uptick in earnings growth in 2016. In similar years, value stocks have beaten growth more than 70% of the time and by a healthy 7 percentage points, on average.”
4. Tech Continues Disruption
Within equities, the technology sector remains a favorite.
According to UBS, the technology sector has steadily outperformed the S&P 500 since mid-2013, and was also a leading sector in 2015.
“Over the past 25 years, the sector has traded on an average premium of 20% over the rest of the market, but today is trading in line with the market, given widespread skepticism that earnings growth can be sustained,” UBS states. “We believe that earnings can go on rising in 2016, due to higher levels of business spending, and secular growth trends such as cloud computing, mobility, cybersecurity, online advertising and big data.”
T. Rowe Price also predicts that rapid shifts in market share will keep growth opportunities plentiful within the tech sector in 2016.
“Cloud storage and the shift to software-as-a-service are disrupting enterprise software and hardware vendors and related companies, while facilitating the explosive growth in broadband technologies, social media, and mobile application-based commerce,” according to the T. Rowe Price outlook.
Wells Fargo also thinks capital spending growth is likely to boost technology sector fundamentals.
5. Consumer Discretionary Winners and Losers
An upswing in consumer spending should benefit many consumer discretionary segments.
According to T. Rowe Price, rising disposable income and low energy prices should continue to support spending growth in 2016.
However, disruption within consumer discretionary is creating winners and losers.
“Mass-market retailers are exposed to sluggish demand growth among lower-income consumers and are under siege from e-commerce competitors,” according to T. Rowe Price. “On the other hand, restaurants, Internet media and Internet retail all appear to present attractive opportunities.”
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