S&P 500 Index Projections Reduced by Wells Fargo, Barclays

Wells Fargo & Co.’s Gina Martin Adams and Barclays Plc’s Barry Knapp cut their forecasts for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index this year, citing economic uncertainty and a potential decline in earnings estimates.

Adams, the New York-based equity strategist at Wells Fargo, reduced her year-end price forecast for the S&P 500 by 10 percent to 1,250. Knapp, the head of U.S. equity strategy, lowered his to 1,325 from 1,450. Adams also cut her projection for combined profit by companies in the benchmark equity measure in 2011 and 2012.

The combination of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis and weakening U.S. economic data has pushed the S&P 500 down as much as 18 percent from its high this year in April. Strategists at Wall Street firms from UBS AG to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have slashed their forecasts for the benchmark U.S. equity measure since the beginning of August. In the same period, analysts that cover stocks in the S&P 500 have lifted their profit estimates 0.4 percent to $99.88 a share.

“Micro profit forecasts are likely to play catch-up to soured macro data in coming weeks,” Adams and Peter Chung, an analyst at the firm, said in the note. “While bottom-up forecasters are holding relatively strong to their convictions for strong profits growth to continue, our models suggest earnings growth is likely to reflect the recent economic slowdown over the next few quarters.”

Weekly Losses

The S&P 500 rose 0.7 percent to 1,162.27 at 4 p.m. in New York. The index lost 1.7 percent last week, its sixth drop in the past seven weeks.

Combined earnings by companies in the equity measure will be $93.50 a share in 2011, down from an earlier estimate of $94.40, Adams said in a note dated today. She also lowered her estimate for profit in 2012 to $98.70 a share from $103.50. Knapp kept his predictions for profit by S&P 500 companies at $96 a share in 2011 and $105 in 2012.

“With roughly three quarters behind us, the risks to 2011 earnings are somewhat limited and we’re comfortable with our forecast,” Knapp wrote in a note dated Sept. 9. “However, 2012 is a different story.”

While Knapp still says S&P 500 profit will increase 9.4 percent in 2012 from the prior year, analysts’ expectations for growth have slowed. Financial companies are among the biggest risks to the Barclays earnings estimate for 2012, he said.

Public Policy

“We remain bullish,” he wrote. “Continued public policy uncertainty and the impact of slowing earnings momentum were significant factors in our decision to cut our 2011 year-end price target to a still optimistic 1,325.”

Technology, industrials, materials and consumer-discretionary stocks will lead the 15 percent rally from the S&P 500’s close on Sept. 9 to Barclays’s year-end forecast, Knapp said. Consumer staples and utility companies will lag behind, he said.

Adams said her profit forecasts for financials and energy companies diverged the most from the average estimate of company analysts. She raised her recommendation for consumer staples and consumer-discretionary stocks to “overweight” and utility stocks to “market weight.” She lowered her ratings for technology companies to “market weight,” while also downgrading industrial, energy and material companies to “underweight.”

Recommended Shift

“We are recommending a shift to a more defensive asset allocation,” Adams wrote. Declining commodity prices have allayed concerns that consumer companies will face margin pressures due to higher input costs, she said.

While the move to “overweight” on discretionary stocks may seem contrary to Wells Fargo’s shift to recommending defensive groups, the group won’t suffer as much as other industries in an economic slowdown, Adams said. Industrial and commodity companies would be vulnerable to a slowdown, according to San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.

“Energy, materials, and industrials nonetheless have among the most difficult earnings comparisons but highest expectations for growth over the next several quarters,” Adams wrote. “As the consensus works to catch up to the economic reality, we expect earnings downgrades are likely to weigh on these segments.”

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