A little more than a year and a half ago, stocks were in the dumpster.
It was March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had just taken hold and ravaged financial markets, sending equity prices into a spiral. And though a bear market had been warned about for years, the uncertainty of a global pandemic forced everyone from regulators to C-suite executives to college students investing through Robinhood to reckon with a slate of new issues, as well as an age-old question: What does the other side of this look like?
Now, Wall Street is once again facing the same conundrum in some respects.
Stocks—after more than a year of hitting record highs after record highs—have begun to wobble. The S&P 500 suffered its worst month in September since that fateful March of 2020. And October has been off to a shaky start with rampant volatility the norm. The Cboe Volatility Index, commonly referred to as the stock market’s “fear gauge,” spiked in late September to some of its highest levels since May.
Behind the moves are an uncharted mix of macro and micro issues that has traders, investors, and analysts trying to predict issues ranging from how bad companies’ supply-chain issues will be in the coming quarters, to whether the Federal Reserve is quickly moving closer to an interest rate hike, to China’s slowing economy. “The construct of the current environment has a number of unique challenges to it,” Neuberger Berman president Joseph Amato tells Fortune.
Two key areas everyone is watching: earnings and inflation.
Corporate America is expected to report blockbuster Q3 results, helped in part by the pandemic-hit comparisons from a year ago. Companies in the S&P 500 are expected to report year-over-year earnings growth of 27.6% for the third quarter, though that could reach almost 35%, according to FactSet. But for investors, the coming earnings season will largely hinge on companies’ forecasts about how hard they are already being hit—if at all—by the higher costs within their supply chains and workforces.
Of the 21 companies in the S&P 500 that have released their latest results already, 15 of them did disclose facing a negative impact from supply-chain disruptions and costs that have come because of COVID-19, according to a recent report from FactSet. It’s not an issue just for the upcoming earnings season, either. Bank of America equity and quant strategists currently see “big risks” to 2022 earnings estimates, according to an Oct. 11 report.
Then there is the issue of inflation. Supply-chain bottlenecks have proved to be one of the big sticking points that has led inflation to be higher for far longer than central bankers expected earlier this year when they spoke of the “transitory” risk. Investors, as a result, are dealing with a whole other question about when the Fed will move to raise interest rates from the rock-bottom levels that have helped fuel a massive run-up in stocks.
“We’ve been in a year and a half period now of supernormal returns,” says Tony DeSpirito, CIO of the U.S. fundamental active equity investment team at BlackRock. “I don’t think that’s going to continue. We’re going to enter into a period of more normalized returns.”
From Morgan Stanley’s prediction of a sharp correction (as much as 20%), to Goldman’s outlook of sunny skies through December, here’s what some of Wall Street’s top analysts expect in the months ahead.
The bulls still believe
Goldman Sachs views the market’s most recent dip as a buying opportunity with the belief that the inflation risk will indeed be transitory.
In an Oct. 8 note, Goldman analysts, led by chief U.S. equity strategist David Kostin, wrote that investors have mounting concerns about stagflation—that is, an environment of high unemployment, high inflation, and slowing economic conditions. However, Goldman still cites the market as primed to tick higher in the weeks ahead, with investors seemingly gaining confidence that inflation is indeed transitory, as Fed Chair Jerome Powell first hinted at earlier this year.
The bank has a year-end price target for the S&P 500 of 4,700. It is currently at 4,350.
Dave Donabedian is not so sure, though—at least about inflation. In fact, the CIBC Private Wealth Management CIO sees inflation sticking around for far longer at a higher level than the Fed and investors would like—thanks to continued economic growth in the U.S. Donabedian says he expects the inflation rate to be as much as a full percent or more higher than the Fed’s expectations, which could drive bond yields higher and make it far more difficult to find success in the equity markets.
Yet, even then, Donabedian is not predicting an outright selloff.
“None of that is a disaster for the equity market outlook,” Donabedian tells Fortune. “It’s just more challenging,”
Volatility will persist
So what can the hordes of new investors who have entered the market over the course of its spectacular run-up expect? Well, in the near term at least, volatility—particularly in many of the risky names that have become retail favorites during the pandemic.
With the Fed expected to begin winding down how much money it is injecting into the bond market—and Congress unlikely to do anything further on the fiscal side—the tidal wave of liquidity that has hit the markets over the past 18 months is beginning to dissipate. “And when you move to an environment where the Fed begins to take away some of that liquidity, in an environment in which the cost of money starts to go up [and] not down by interest rates, that’s when speculation is punished, not rewarded,” Donabedian says.
According to LPL Financial, an investment bank and brokerage that loves to mine historical data, October may get spooky.
Indeed its research shows that October has over time proved to be one of the wildest months of the year for U.S. equities, with significant crashes like those of 1929, 1987, and 2008 all hitting in the weeks ahead of Halloween. In a Sept. 30 report, the investment bank’s research team detailed how no month includes more 1% moves in either direction than October.
“History is repeating itself with a volatile October,” LPL chief market strategist Ryan Detrick says, adding that a month of volatility is needed for the market to catch its breath.
Volatility doesn’t mean worse returns. Detrick, in fact, sees the fourth quarter of this year holding steady with its reputation as the best three-month period of the year for stocks. Detrick particularly likes companies in the industrial, financial, and materials industries, and he is staying away from utilities and consumer staples. “We think it’s still a major bull market,” Detrick says. “It’s going to take some breaks here and there. But the truth is the fourth quarter is usually the strongest quarter of the year.”
The bears make their case
One of Wall Street’s biggest bears, Morgan Stanley, is holding strong in its concern about what’s to come in U.S. stocks.
The investment bank warned weeks ago that a 20% selloff in the S&P 500 could be on the horizon, and, on Oct. 11, doubled down on the fact that a correction is coming. When, exactly, is the question now. “We are gaining confidence in a sharper deceleration, but the timing is uncertain,” wrote Morgan Stanley analysts, led by chief U.S. equity strategist Mike Wilson.
For Morgan Stanley, how quickly earnings slow over the coming weeks will be a key sign as to whether the market faces a mid-cycle transition that ends with a 10% correction or a 20% one. And while companies are likely to attribute higher costs and sales shortfalls on supply constraints, the investment bank’s U.S. equity strategists see forward earnings estimates eventually coming down: “In short, we may need to wait for winter for the ice as fall remains balmy.”
Not that everyday investors should be keeping an eye on the markets every day, or even every week.
“Real investing is about getting rich slowly,” BlackRock’s DeSpirito tells Fortune. “It’s not about the dopamine hit that you get from having a stock go up 10% or 20% in a given day.”
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This article is part of Fortune’s quarterly investment guide for Q4 2021.