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The biggest issue facing the stock market right now

Sam Ro
Managing Editor
A trader points to a screen from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

The past year has been a volatile journey for investors. After several massive swings in price, the most recent leg of the bull market has seen the S&P 500 (GSPC) go from 2,038 at the beginning of the year to a low of 1,810 on Feb 10 all the way up to 2,080 this past week.

The big question for investors: what’s next?

With expectations so bleak for earnings season, much of the recent focus has been about risks to the downside.

For Citi’s Tobias Levkovich, the problem is not so much the myriad risks to the downside, but rather the lack of risks to the upside.

”The biggest issue facing new commitments to the market is identifying catalysts for more gains,” Levkovich said in a note to clients on Friday. “Expectations for global economic growth acceleration seem unlikely to change easily amidst worries ranging from the effects of monetary policy through to Brexit and the upcoming US elections. Earnings recovery in the US and a stronger domestic consumer drawing in exports from EM and Europe could provide some relief, but skeptical fund managers will have to be won over in coming months and thus data dependency will be important to both central bankers and the broader investment community.”

The S&P 500 over the past two years

Levkovich’s peers on Wall Street also don’t see much reason to be bullish on stocks in the near term.

“Given the broader context of the ‘binge’ since the February lows, our advice is to be a bit more cautious on meaningful US equity market appreciation from here,” Morgan Stanley’s Parker said in a note to clients on Sunday. “The biggest macro investment questions are: 1) Will the China economy slow in the second half of the year? 2) Will the dollar return to a strengthening path? Morgan Stanley’s answers are yes to both, and that supports getting a bit more cautious. The market has fattened up and needs to diet for a few months, not just a couple of days of starvation.”

Deutsche Bank’s David Bianco estimates it is just as likely that the S&P 500’s next move is up 5% as it is down 5%.

What to do next

Levkovich has a mid-year 2016 target of 2,150 for the S&P 500, which suggests just modest upside for investors.

“It may be appropriate to think about the old Wall Street adage of ‘Sell in May and Go Away’ if we are so close to our mid-year 2016 target, but we also wonder if an earnings inflection keeps that seasonal trading pattern from emerging this year as the negative 1Q16 trend reverses and 2H16 profits show gains,” he said. “Nonetheless, with limited near-term upside, we can understand if investors hold back a bit this summer.”

Longer term, the prospects for investment returns seem more attractive.

In his note on Friday, Levkovich introduced a mid-year 2017 S&P 500 target of 2,250, which is about 8% higher than current levels.

Sam Ro is managing editor at Yahoo Finance

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