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Wells Fargo sees stock gains in 2019 despite higher interest rates, aging expansion

Key Points
  • The Wells Fargo Investment Institute believes the broad S&P 500 index should climb to a range between 2,860 and 2,960 by the end of next year.
  • Despite predictions of further equity gains, the Wells Fargo strategists think that a slowing economy and receding fiscal stimulus could cause volatility.
  • The 2019 outlook, published Wednesday, implies about 7 percent upside from current levels around 2,700.
Tourists pose for pictures with the famous bull sculpture near Wall Street in New York.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

While U.S. stocks should continue to climb in 2019 amid record earnings, the trek to new highs will be marked by turbulence as both fiscal and monetary stimuli recede and economic activity slows, according to Wells Fargo.

Global equity strategists Audrey Kaplan and Scott Wren wrote in the Wells Fargo Investment Institute's annual outlook that the broad index should climb to a range between 2,860 and 2,960 by the end of next year despite greater volatility across riskier securities. The 2019 outlook, published Wednesday, implies about 7 percent upside from current levels around 2,700.

"The end of easy means, in part, that more historically normal volatility has returned to financial markets," the strategists told clients. "Rising interest rates make credit more expensive and the sudden shift in the geopolitical environment spark surprises."

"However, we believe that investors should not fear the changing trend, so long as low inflation and solid earnings-per-share growth continue," he added. "To this point, even if EPS rises more slowly late in the cycle, it can still reach higher levels that, in turn, drive higher equity prices."

Critical to the Wells Fargo thesis for continued gains in the stock market is the belief that earnings per share can continue to grind to all-time highs in the year ahead. Corporate profits have accelerated to new heights over the past two years as President Donald Trump's historic tax cuts eased levies on the nation's largest companies in the hopes of spurring investment and rewarding workers.

Forward S&P 500 EPS topped $172 by the end of the third fiscal quarter; Wells Fargo believes that number could rise to $177 by December 2019.

"Household and business spending should keep profit margins at sustainable levels," Wren and Kaplan added. "EPS for the large-cap benchmark index, the S&P 500, should have additional support from repatriated overseas profits."

Earnings will also likely climb thanks to share buybacks, which reduce the number of outstanding shares and, in turn, boost profits per share.

The Investment Institute sees stock gains despite a slowdown in economic activity, with Wells Fargo's economic team predicting gross domestic product to grow 2.7 percent in 2019. Darrell Cronk, the institute's president, also warned of the end of outsized job gains as the economy enters its final stages.

"The end of easy doesn't mean the end of the cycle. The expansion is old but not over. What it does mean, however, is that conditions that have proven reliable for many years are shifting," Cronk wrote. "Multidecade tight labor conditions put upward pressure on wages, making it difficult for employers to attract and retain needed talent for growth."

The Wells Fargo strategists recommended investors consider health care and financial stocks, and argued that those sectors look relatively cheap. They also favor consumer discretionary and industrials equities, which "should benefit from the solid pace of consumer spending, an improved rate of business spending, and steady economic growth overseas."