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Coronavirus is hitting the economy worse than Wall Street thinks, investor Rich Bernstein warns

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Why a coronavirus sparked downturn could be worse than a typical recession

An Institutional Investor Hall of Famer has a warning for investors: It's a fool's game to try to time a bottom.

Richard Bernstein, who has spent decades on Wall Street, believes investors are underestimating the damage from the coronavirus to the economy and stocks.

"It's not like a normal recession where the storm clouds are building, and you can start playing around with your income statement and cash flow statement to try to protect the company on the downside," the CEO and CIO of Richard Bernstein Advisors told CNBC's "Trading Nation" on Monday. "You could have been a very successful business two weeks ago, and now you have nobody in your restaurant."

Bernstein was one of Wall Street's biggest bulls until early 2019. That's when he got worried about slowing corporate profits.

By late last year, he cautioned that a "full-blown profits recession" could hit the U.S. in 2020.

"We've been very defensively positioned," he added. 

The picture he paints now is grimmer.

According to Bernstein, investors haven't fully grasped the shock waves the coronavirus is sending through the economy,

"The rapidity of the falloff in the economy and the lack of preparedness in the United States and other Western economies before this means you're going to see a lot of defaults very quickly," he said. "I would caution against people thinking it's just going to be smaller companies."

On Monday, the Dow plunged almost 3,000 points or nearly 13% as coronavirus cases kept growing. It was the index's worst day since the "Black Monday" crash in 1987

The S&P 500 and tech-heavy Nasdaq both fell 12%. 

"True bottoms come when people kind of give up hope," Bernstein said. "What you want to look out for is the combination of improving fundamentals and complete disbelief. I don't think we're there yet because the fundamentals haven't really deteriorated yet."

-- CNBC's Robert Hum contributed to this report.

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Economic damage from coronavirus will exceed expectations, Rich Bernstein warns