Morgan Stanley says October sell-off is ‘morphing’ into a bear market

Morgan Stanley disagrees with the rest of Wall Street: The bank’s top strategists are gearing up for a much longer bear market while others are betting the sell-off is short-lived.

“The rolling bear market continues to make progress and there is growing evidence that it is morphing into a proper cyclical bear market in the context of a secular bull,” wrote Michael Wilson, the bank’s chief equity strategist. “We think the evidence is building and the message from Mr. Market is clear: the consensus outlook for earnings growth is too rosy next year.”

Morgan Stanley is concerned that actions by the Federal Reserve and other central banks is drying up liquidity more than most market participants predicted, putting stocks in a precarious position. The Fed, which influences the financial markets by adjusting the overnight lending rate, has hiked interest rates three times this year and is widely expected to do so again in December.

Some corporate officials have cautioned that between higher borrowing costs and an uncertain tariff outlook, 2019 could prove a tough year for stocks. Wilson pointed out that about half of all the stocks in the broad MSCI U.S. Equity Index are at least 20 percent below their 52-week highs.

“The markets seem to agree and have been quietly revolting all year,” Wilson added. “We don’t think the revolts will stop until central banks pause or at least signal they are concerned. With the Fed having to respond to still strong economic data and the desire to remain apolitical, we think it could take another 200 S&P points making 2450 a reasonable downside target to consider.”

The S&P 500 is off more than 8.5 percent from its all-time high in September, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average is off by more than 7.6 percent. Some, such as Goldman Sachs’s equity chief, see the stock market sell-off over the past month as “overdone” and a buying opportunity.

“The recent sell-off has priced too sharp of a near-term growth slowdown,” David Kostin, Goldman’s chief U.S. equity strategist, said in a note to clients. “We expect continued economic and earnings growth will support a rebound in the S&P 500.”

The rosier view from Goldman comes amid a largely solid economic backdrop. Third-quarter GDP rose 3.5 percent, according to a preliminary reading Friday.

Still, Morgan Stanley has defended its forecast for dismal stock performance this year, even as the S&P 500 rallied 9.5 percent by mid-September. Since then, stocks have plunged more than 8 percent, erasing nearly all of their 2018 gains over than span of five weeks as the markets appear to reward Wilson’s persistence.

The strategist also said that the U.S. equity market sold off in ways “we haven’t seen in years,” highlighting losses in technology and consumer discretionary stocks. Wilson said those sectors are where money managers have the most exposure, and translates into “extreme portfolio pain.”

“The rolling bear market is quickly moving to complete its job with growth stocks (Tech, Health Care and Discretionary) catching up on the downside and we don’t think it will be over until this gap is completely closed,” he wrote.

Wilson’s bear case for the market of 2,400 implies more than 10 percent downside from current levels; his base case of 2,750 implies 3 percent upside.

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