Stocks to crawl higher in 2019, about right for a slowing economy, RBC predicts

Key Points
  • RBC chief equity strategist Lori Calvasina writes that the broad S&P 500 index should post more muted gains in 2019 as GDP growth recedes.
  • The strategist says her 2019 S&P 500 target of 2,900 is in line with with the median gain during years that precede 0 to 2 percent real GDP growth.
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Investors should expect U.S. stocks to inch higher next year as economic growth moderates and the effects of President Donald Trump's tax cuts dwindle, according to RBC Capital Markets.

Chief equity strategist Lori Calvasina wrote in her 2019 outlook on Thursday that the broad index should post more muted gains as gross domestic product growth recedes toward its normal rate, assuming no additional fiscal stimulus.

"Our preliminary forecast/base case is for the S&P 500 to end 2019 near 2,900, up 6 percent from the Nov. 28 close, and in line with the median gain in the S&P 500 during years that precede 0 to 2 percent real U.S. GDP years," Calvasina wrote. The firm sees 2019 S&P earnings per share at $171 next year.

Her year-end 2019 S&P target is shy of the median 3,000 forecast of 10 other equity strategists surveyed by CNBC, though more strategists are expected to issue forecasts in the coming week and could impact her ranking.

A growing number of Wall Street firms believe U.S. GDP growth will contract to around 2 percent by 2020 from current levels above 3 percent. RBC Capital sees GDP climbing less than 2 percent in 2020 but believes that if recession fears mount before then, stock returns could be even worse.

"The economy itself is currently quite strong. But investors have been preoccupied with the idea that it is 'late cycle' and this longer-term worry has been driving positioning and performance," the strategist added. "We do not believe a recession is on the horizon, but if we are wrong, downside moves could be much more meaningful."

The strategist also believes that of the many factors that could affect the market in the next year, just one bodes well for stocks.

"We still consider deals and cash deployment to be the main underpinning of support for the market, but also think investors need to adjust their expectations," she wrote. "Buybacks have been supportive of the market, but activity has been less robust than past cycles. Capex growth has also started to moderate, which seems likely to continue as capex expectations and corporate confidence have been softening."

Calvasina recommends investors focus on value stocks as the bull market ages, highlighting a slew of earnings revisions in growth stocks and the outsized effect share buybacks should have on more defensive sectors. The brokerage is overweight consumer staples, as well as financial and energy stocks thanks to compelling valuations and prospects for healthy dividends and repurchases, the strategist added.

For financials, "buyback activity is picking up and debt levels are low versus historical trends," Calvasina wrote. Staples have "attractive valuations vs. the S&P 500 and the best valuation profile among defensive sectors. [They're] deeply out of favour on the sell side, with net buy ratings near lows again."

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