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Market 2016 outlook: Wine and roses? Or stress and strain?

Bull and bear statues.
Ralph Orlowski | Reuters
Bull and bear statues.

With central bank policies and energy weighing on traders' minds this year, the outlook for 2016 varies far and wide.

While some strategists expect a solid, but unspectacular economy next year, others told CNBC not to expect "all wine and roses."

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Bear case: Stress and strain

A strenuous 2016 will put economies across several continents under strain, Art Cashin, UBS' director of floor operations at the New York Stock Exchange, told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Thursday.

"I don't think Mr. [Mario] Draghi has as much ammunition left as people think," Cashin said. "I've said it time and time again: I think the Fed made a mistake by beginning liftoff, and I think that will come home to roost. I think the manufacturing sector will have some difficulties ... I'd like to be all wine and roses here, but I think the first quarter will be strenuous."

With companies like Petrobras, Glencore and Peabody under financial stress, credit markets could contract and keep the U.S. central bank from hiking rates further in 2016, said Lawrence McDonald, head of U.S. macro strategy at Societe Generale.

"One of the most crowded trades and perspectives heading into 2016 is the perspective that the Fed and the U.S. economy are going to drive the policy path," McDonald said Thursday on "Squawk on the Street." "I think that's very Pollyanna-ish. You got a very high probability that credit risk drives the policy path, not the U.S. economy. And that's the thing investors should be watching heading in to 2016."

The combination of a stronger dollar and weaker energy prices presents a conundrum that might heighten credit risk in the market, McDonald said.

"Here's the bottom line point, if you're at home right now, looking for ideas: In 2014 and '15, you were better off sitting in the boat with cash and putting money to work in moments of fear," McDonald said. "In October 2015, the S&P was down 10 percent. If you bought that fear, you outperformed the market. ... That playbook is probably going to work again in 2016."

Erin Gibbs, equity chief investment officer at S&P Investment Advisory Services, also expressed doubts about whether the energy sector will rebound as much as other industries.

"Right now, there are some very beaten-up energy stocks," Gibbs said on "Squawk on the Street." "But it still looks like they're going to have a rough 2016. I think you've got to look at it with value, but you also have to pick your sectors. "

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Bull case: Wine and roses

But Gibbs also said she expects at about 7 percent earnings growth on the S&P 500 in 2016 as the market approaches valuations near the top of a two-year range.

John Stoltzfus, managing director and chief market strategist at Oppenheimer & Co., added that an improvement next year would be consistent with historical trends. But he had a rosier view of the energy sector.

"We do think the energy patch is likely to improve somewhat," Stoltzfus said on "Squawk on the Street." "We think we're over these down 65 percent in earnings per quarter that we've seen. We think the bottom probably was reached at around $34. That seems to be a marker for the price of oil, where people go, 'My god, 34 bucks, this is too cheap.' And that's when they come back in to buy."

If volatility is likely to continue into 2016, so is the opportunity that comes along with it, said Paul Christopher, head global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute. He's especially looking for improvement in consumer discretionary, industrials and information technology sectors as the economy settles into what he sees as a "firmer path."

"There's been so much negative sentiment, so much pessimism, that there might even be room here for a little bit of multiple expansion as well," Christopher said on "Squawk on the Street." "So we're still looking for the S&P to finish next year 2,230 to 2,330, in that range. ... A decent year we're looking for in the S&P next year, consistent with a steady, solid, but unspectacular year in the economy."

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