Last November and December, veteran stock market watchers forecast that 2023 would be a year to forget. They saw high inflation, a looming global recession and rising interest rates as sapping households’ buying power and denting corporate profits. For investors, they penciled in paltry gains and one of the worst performances for the S&P 500 in the past 15 years.
But the market pros got the story only partly right. While interest rates did climb to a near two-decade peak, the S&P 500 has surprisingly soared to a near record high. Fueled partly by a rally in the so-called Magnificent Seven megacap tech stocks, it’s risen nearly 25 percent this year, as of Thursday’s close, shaking off a banking crisis, wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, and slowing growth in China’s economy.
Crypto managed to do even better. Bitcoin bulls have swept aside a legal crackdown against the industry’s biggest players to fuel an impressive rally. The digital token has gained more than 150 percent this year, making it one of the best performing risky assets.
“Twenty twenty-three was a great year for the contrarians,” David Bahnsen, the founder and chief investment officer of the Bahnsen Group, a wealth management firm, told DealBook. “You had macroeconomic concerns a year ago that didn’t come to bear, and you had valuation and financial concerns that didn’t come to bear. And it’s particularly ironic that it didn’t, because actually everything investors feared a year ago got worse.”
Wall Street’s outlook for 2024 is rosier. Analysts see lower borrowing costs, a soft landing (that is, an economic slowdown that avoids a recession) and a pretty good year for investors.
But if 2023 taught the market pros anything, it’s that forecasts can look out of date pretty fast. A slew of things could disrupt the markets in the year ahead — inflation creeping up again, or not, is one big factor to watch. And there are wild cards, too, with voters expected to head to the polls in over 50 countries next year, including the U.S.
Here’s how Wall Street sees 2024 playing out:
The bull case
The median year-end 2024 forecast for the S&P 500 is 5,068, according to FactSet. Such a level would imply an annualized gain of roughly 6 percent for 2024.
Bank of America’s equity strategists, led by Savita Subramanian, are among those in the bullish camp. In their annual forecast, they said that the S&P 500 would be likely to close out next year at 5,000, helped by a kind of “goldilocks” scenario of falling prices and rising corporate profits.
Goldman Sachs is even more upbeat. Its analysts upgraded their year-end 2024 call on the S&P 500 to 5,100. They made the change after the Fed’s surprise statement on Dec. 13 that the equivalent of three interest-rate cuts were on the table for next year. Lower borrowing costs tend to give consumers and businesses more spending power, which could help Corporate America’s bottom line.
Another catalyst: Investors this year put far more money into safe interest-rate sensitive assets, like money market funds, than they did into stocks. That logic could be flipped on its head in 2024. “As rates begin to fall, investors may rotate some of their cash holdings toward stocks,” David Kostin, the chief U.S. equity strategist at Goldman Sachs, said in a recent investor note.
The bear case
On the more pessimistic side is JPMorgan Chase, which carries a 2024 year-end target of 4,200. Its analysts team, led by Marko Kolanovic, the bank’s chief global market strategist, sees a struggling consumer with depleted savings, a potential recession and geopolitical uncertainty that could push up commodity prices, like oil, and push down global growth.
The year ahead will be “another challenging year for market participants,” Kolanovic said. (Most strategists are even more downbeat on Europe, where recession fears are more acute. On the flip side, equities in Asia could show another year of solid growth, especially in India and Japan, Wall Street analysts say.)
Lee Ferridge, the head of multi-asset strategy for North America at State Street Global Markets, is more optimistic about the American consumer, but points to a different challenge for investors. “If I’m right, the economy stays stronger. But then that’s a double-edged sword for equities,” he said. The prospect of robust consumer and business spending poses an inflation risk that could force the Fed to hold rates higher for longer, and even pause cuts, he said. “That’s going to be a headwind for equities.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fairly flat year next year,” he added. “If we are up, it’s going to be the Magnificent Seven that are the drivers again.”
The wild card: politics and the elections
Presidential elections are not rally killers, according to market analysis by LPL Financial that looks at the past 71 years. In that period, the S&P has risen, on average, by 7 percent during U.S. presidential election years. (The market tends to do even better in a re-election year, the financial advice firm notes.)
Even with some uncommon questions swirling over next year’s contest — Will a mountain of legal troubles derail the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump? Will President Biden’s sagging polling ratings open the door for a strong third-party challenger? Will the election result be disputed, causing a constitutional crisis? — that’s unlikely to add much volatility to the markets, Wall Street pros say.
“The election will not be a story in the stock market, up until November 2024, for the simple reason that the stock market will not know who’s going to win the election until November 2024,” Bahnsen said.
His advice: Don’t even try to game out the election’s impact on the markets.