Dow's Freakish Bounce Makes Investors Whole, Can't Erase Doubts

Deep Dive: U.S. Stock Market Rally, Oil Prices
  • Crude rally, patient Fed boost benchmark by 12% since Feb. 11
  • Signs of caution amid earnings slump, investor withdrawals

Just as fast as U.S. stocks tumbled in what was the worst-ever start to a year, they have staged one of the biggest turnarounds in history -- and yet all anyone seems to focus on are the negatives.

An advance of 0.9 percent in the 119-year-old Dow Jones Industrial Average Thursday wiped out a year-to-date decline that swelled to as much as 10 percent in February, making investors whole 11 weeks into a year that was shaping up to be a disaster. It’s the fastest that a retreat of 10 percent or more has ever been reversed this early in a year, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

And while the rebound was welcome news to investors who held on through January and February, signs of celebration were few. Strategists who frantically reduced forecasts as shares plunged have kept cutting on the way back up. Estimates for U.S. profits are getting worse. And a day after Federal Reserve policy makers lowered forecasts for gross domestic product, chunks of the market remain mired in losses.

“We’re back to where we were, but still the dynamics are not bullish,” Rich Weiss, the Mountain View, California-based senior portfolio manager at American Century Investment, which oversees about $140 billion, said in an interview. “The rebound is not economically driven. There is very little difference in economic indicators from the end of the year through today.”

Starting one day after global stocks slipped into their first bear market since 2011, the 30-member Dow average has surged 12 percent in 24 days, erasing a decline that had swelled past 10 percent with the help of seven separate daily advances exceeding 1 percent. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is right behind, closing Thursday at 2,040.59, about 3 points below its level at the end of 2015.

The rebound came amid diminishing speculation that the U.S. economy stands at the precipice of a recession, with the optimism fueled as oil, a market that has dominated investor sentiment since August, staged a 50 percent rebound from a 12-year low. Worries have eased that the Federal Reserve will rush to raise interest rates amid signs of tepid global growth.

“On the one hand, many investors believe this is just a rally within a cyclical bear market, and one where you want to lighten up,” said Michael Sheldon, chief investment officer of Northstar Wealth Partners, which oversees $2 billion in assets in West Hartford, Connecticut. “Others feel that since the likelihood of a recession is fairly limited, the markets should be able to build on current gains.”

The lack of conviction is a hallmark of the seven-year bull market that’s now weeks away from being the second-longest in history.

Even as the Dow average added more than 1,800 points since Feb. 11 , equity strategists lowered their year-end targets, retail investors continued to pull cash from stocks at near-record rates and gains were steepest among companies that hold up best in an economy that’s slowing.

As the rally accelerated in March, equity strategists grew less bullish. The average year-end target has dropped 2.9 percent to 2,152 from 2,216 at the start of the year, according to a Bloomberg survey of 21 firms. Ten have cut their predictions this year and the average now sees the S&P 500 rising 5.5 percent by the end of December, almost half as much as forecast when the year started.

Naysayers in the rally point with most confidence to three straight quarters of falling profits among S&P 500 firms. Out of the 17 occasions since 1937 when earnings fell for at least that long, 14 occurred within three months of a bear market. Analysts don’t expect a quarterly increase in profit until the period that ends Sept. 30.

Bulls may not take encouragement from the industries leading the market. Defensive stocks have kept the S&P 500 afloat in 2016, with shares of utility and phone companies posting gains more than double energy producers, the next-best performer. An index of utility stocks has climbed 13 percent in 2016, the best start relative to the benchmark gauge since at least 1989.

Stocks like utilities and consumer staples have a history of beating the broader index during bear markets. As the S&P 500 slumped 57 percent between October 2007 and March 2009, the three best-performing industries were staples, health-care and utilities stocks. The same thing occurred from March 2000 to September 2001, when the broader measure plunged 37 percent.

“It’s been up an awful lot, and it’ll stumble at some point,” said John Manley, who helps oversee about $233 billion as chief equity strategist for Wells Fargo Funds Management in New York. “It’s probably going to take an earnings boost to get the market much higher. We’re back to fair valuation.”

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