Goldman Sachs on 2019: Raise cash, get defensive and look out below if more tariffs happen

  • Goldman Sachs is not feeling very bullish about stocks in 2019.
  • It says the S&P 500 will rise just 5 percent to 3,000 by year-end 2019 (after closing 2018 at 2,850).
  • Its base forecast: Stocks return 7 percent, T-bills return 3 percent and Treasurys return 1 percent in 2019.
  • But it says the market could be in for big trouble from tariffs.

Goldman Sachs is not feeling very bullish about stocks in 2019, according to its official outlook report to clients out this week.

Here are some of the investment bank's predictions for next year:

  • The S&P 500 will rise just 5 percent to 3,000 by year-end 2019 (after closing 2018 at 2,850).
  • Households, mutual funds and pension funds should raise cash: "Cash will represent a competitive asset class to stocks for the first time in many years."
  • Investors should buy defensive sectors and stocks to ride out a tough year where fears of a recession increase. Goldman raised utilities sector to "overweight" in the report.
  • Base forecast: Stocks return 7 percent, T-bills return 3 percent and Treasurys return 1 percent in 2019.
  • But the market could be in for big trouble from tariffs: "If the full 25 percent tariffs are levied on all imports from China the earnings impact could be significant, potentially eliminating any profit growth next year," the report said.

Goldman generally believes the bull market will continue in 2019, but it could get choppier as the year continues and investors begin to worry about a recession in 2020. The bank puts a 30 percent probability on a market "downside scenario" where fears of a recession and tariffs drive the market earnings valuation to contract and the S&P 500 to end the year down at 2,500. (It gives a 50 percent probability to its S&P 500 3,000 base case and just a 20 percent probability for the 3,400 upside case.)

"For equity investors, risk is high and the margin of safety is low because stock valuations are elevated compared with history," chief equity strategist David Kostin and team wrote in a note to clients Monday. "We forecast the S&P 500 index will generate a modest single-digit absolute return in 2019. Perhaps more important, the prospective risk-adjusted return to equities will be less than one-half the long-term average and cash will represent a competitive asset class to stocks for the first time in many years."

The bank's economic team said Sunday that economic growth will slow to a crawl in the second half of next year.

The S&P 500 closed Monday at 2,690.73, little changed for 2018 and down 8.5 percent from its record reached earlier in the year. The market slid again Tuesday as investors continued to dump their technology stock winners. An earnings miss from retailer Target also added to the negative sentiment.

Too much in stock market

Most investors (households, mutual funds, pension funds and foreign entities) are too overweight stocks and need to raise cash, Goldman said.

"These entities have equity allocations ranking in the 89th percentile vs. the past 30 years," the report said. "At the same time, these investors have cash allocations at the very bottom of their historical allocations, often ranking below the 1st percentile."

Buy utilities

Goldman still likes technology stocks despite the rout that started in October. The bank also likes communication services, saying both sectors have high profit margins that could be sustainable in a tougher economic environment.

But Goldman is especially bullish utilities, raising the sector to overweight.

The bank likes the sector's "track record of notable outperformance during decelerating GDP growth environments and a low historical beta to S&P 500."

Quality stocks

Goldman also advised clients to buy stocks with stable businesses and recurring revenue. Members of the firm's "high quality" stock basket include Dollar Tree, PepsiCo and BlackRock.