Blue chips, like American Express and General Electric, were trading in the single digits. Since then, the S&P 500 has rebounded 177 percent to new highs, and the wounded financial sector is up more than 250 percent but still 60 percent off its 2007 high, according to S&P Capital IQ.
Fewer than a third of bull markets make it through a sixth year, but those that do have averaged gains of 26 percent in that year, says S&P Capital IQ. Monday marks the start of year six, and Wall Street strategists—nearly all expecting solid gains this year—say the economy will now have to prove that it is strong enough to keep corporate profits rising, as the Fed continues to pull back from its easy money policies.
"I think in a sense we're back to a more normal market environment," said Sam Stovall, chief strategist of S&P Capital IQ. Stovall, like others, says the market is particularly stretched since it has not had a major correction in months. "I think we're bumping up against fair value for stocks, so unless we make some dramatic change to our economic and earnings growth expectations then I think we either have to correct in time or in price." But he still targets the S&P reaching 1,940 by year-end.
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While many analysts drew parallels during the financial crisis to the Great Depression and the market crash that preceded it, Stovall said the policy reactions were very different this time. "What was different was the way the Fed responded to the financial crisis. What made me think this is not the 1930s/1940s is we got back to break even after five years. It took 25 years to get back to break even after the crash of 1929, and I think the bulk of that delay was the missteps of both the Fed and the Treasury."
With the Fed stepping back from its bond-buying program, stocks will have to navigate an environment of rising rates as long as economic growth improves as expected. Rates moved higher after Friday's jobs report reinforced the view that a recent batch of weak data is likely temporary and the result of bad winter weather. The 10-year yield was as high as 2.81 percent, a six-week high. There were 175,000 nonfarm payrolls added in February, the best pace since last year.
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"We are paying most attention to the growth numbers. Typically over the last several years, the monetary policy picture has been a huge driver, and getting that right was a big part of being correct about making money in the market," said Jim McDonald, chief investment strategist at Northern Trust. "We think that's fading to the back burner. The market's got QE fatigue. What the market really needs to see to continue the bull market is organic growth because the Fed said: 'we want to get out of this game.' "
The market will also have to deal with more volatility, already impacting stocks this year since the Fed began pulling back from its quantitative easing program. Analysts, however, do not expect rates to rise so rapidly stocks will be jarred, and that's partly because the Fed has vowed to hold short-term rates lower for longer.
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"Our base case is we will see better performance of the market in the second half of the year because we do think better growth will come through. The stock market can handle higher rates as long as the economy is growing but if rates are rising because inflation is the cause, the market doesn't like that," McDonald said. "The increases we have had in rates are because of better growth and a view the Fed is beginning to normalize policy, and we think that's good for the stock market."
Gary Thayer, chief macro strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors, said the market should be able to handle the Fed's move away from QE. He expects the S&P to reach 1,975 to 2,025 this year. "I think the economy has been healing, and I think there's a lot of room for growth, and if you look at things like consumer debt ratios, debt service to income is very low—the lowest level in 30 years. The last two times we were this low were the early stages of expansion in the early 1980s and early 1990s," he said. Thayer said the debt service to disposable income is down to 9.92 percent from 13.18 before the financial crisis and compared to 10.37 in the early 1990s.
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"The bottom line is we still have the capacity to grow further if there aren't any major disruptions in the global economy. We think even though the market has done well in five years, there's a lot of room for further gains. It may not be smooth sailing every year, but we see more gains."
Thayer said he sees that the biggest risks for U.S. stocks are likely to come from overseas, and he would put money first into U.S. stocks, then Japan and Europe, and lastly emerging markets.
McDonald said the situation with Ukraine should not impact stocks even if Crimea becomes part of Russia, but further aggression could change that view.
"What would cause the bull market to end? There's two possibilities. One is the economy runs out of gas and investors say: 'There's no more monetary support. We're going to take money off the table,' " he said. "The second is the economy gets so strong that the Fed has to raise interest rates and you have a typical end of the bull market." But McDonald said he is still constructive on stocks though he said the idea that the economy gets weaker is the scenario he sees as more likely at some point in the next couple of years.
"We have gone over 600 days without a 10 percent correction. Typically on average, you have a 10 percent correction every 161 days. 1,250 days without a 20 percent correction. We typically have one every 635 days. The market is extended," said McDonald. "Those periods tend to be more extended during bull cycles. It is not unusual to have longer cycles when the market is going up, and that 's what we experienced, but it's telling you this rally is long in the tooth."