The path of least resistance for stocks leads south, say strategists

Weaker data and market correlation

Middling economic data, a skittish consumer and the likelihood the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates by year-end are all conspiring to drag stocks lower in the final months of 2016, strategists said Thursday.

Major U.S. averages were higher Thursday, but the S&P 500 is down about 1.8 percent over the past week. Stocks have been pressured in recent days by Fed rate hike uncertainty and rising long-term interest rates, which make equities look less attractive on a relative basis.

Now, strategists say a summertime rally that brought indexes to new highs has lost steam.

"I think we're at a point in time where the path of least resistance in this market is certainly lower and will be lower," Wunderlich Securities' chief market strategist, Art Hogan, told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Thursday.

Hogan said he's not expecting a full-blown sell-off, but a 5 to 10 percent pullback.

Despite lackluster economic data in recent weeks, the Fed still appears determined to raise interest rates once this year, he said. The market is focusing too much attention on a rate increase from "emergency levels," and will likely brush off the hike after it happens, Hogan said.

Still, Thursday's data showing industrial production fell in August and retail sales softened do not provide a positive backdrop, said Brian Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds.

"That's just not pointing to stocks in the near term moving materially higher," he told "Squawk on the Street." "I think we really do need to see the data strengthen in order to support a further move higher."

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Savita Subramanian, head of U.S. equity and quantitative strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said she too is worried about a "skittish" consumer. While corporate earnings are expected to rebound in the near term, that recovery is largely due to rising oil prices and a weaker dollar — catalysts Subramanian called "low quality."

"Take oil out of the equation. Take the dollar out of the equation. You still have no demand recovery. That's what I worry about," she told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Bank of America expects the S&P 500 to slide about 6 percent to end the year at 2,000. Subramanian said she projects health-care and tech stocks to outperform in that scenario, but the overall market doesn't look great at current levels.

"This is the first time I've felt really worried about the S&P," she said.