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Wall Street is telling clients the coronavirus meltdown could get worse

Expert explains markets' coronavirus dip
Expert explains markets' coronavirus dip 03:05

Now that the market has fallen nearly 14% in roughly a week — putting U.S. stocks into a correction for the first time since late 2018 — what happens next is less clear, even by Wall Street's famously foggy standards.

Just a few weeks ago, most Wall Street strategists, the highly paid professionals who tell investing clients where stocks are headed, seemed convinced that the market would be immune from the coronavirus, even as the number of infected climbed

JPMorgan Chase head of global equity strategy Mislav Matejka called the fundamental economic backdrop "supportive" and predicted stocks would continue to climb. Morgan Stanley strategist Mike Wilson said any drop in the market would be "contained to 5%" and that the "virus development should not derail the economy."

That contagion-free confidence has now collapsed. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 1,200 points on Thursday and is now down more than 3,000 points from a week ago. The S&P 500-stock index is down 14% since it peaked eight days ago, and has lost nearly $3.4 trillion in market value along the way.

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To be sure, there have been plenty of wobbles in the decade-long bull market, some of them even wobblier than the current unsteadiness. Stocks eventually regained their footing and rose higher. 

But what makes the coronavirus drop unique is the speed at which it has occurred. Southwest Airlines, to name just one travel-sensitive company, was flying high just two weeks ago. The discount airline's stock hit a 52-week high on February 14 of nearly $59. On Thursday, the stock hit its 52-week low of just under $46.

Fastest correction in 50 years

The current market drop is the fastest stock market correction in the past 50 years, according to Birinyi Associates. (That milestone ignores some major market one-day collapses, like 1987's Black Monday, which occurred only after the market had been slowly sliding for nearly two months.)

In fact, the market drop has been so fast it is quickly eclipsing some of the more pessimistic pronouncements emerging from Wall Street in recent days.

On Thursday morning, for example, Goldman Sachs told clients it thought the S&P 500 could drop another 9% to 2,950 in the next three months, a negative prediction that caught the attention of Wall Street. The firm also said corporate profit growth is likely to vanish this year because of the coronavirus, and that U.S. economic growth would slow. By the close of the trading day, the S&P had already slumped to 2,987, just 1% shy of Goldman's three-month prediction. 

Goldman's dismal outlook was far from the most dire. Lori Calvasiana, head of U.S. equity strategy at RBC, told clients in a note on Thursday that the coronavirus could trigger a recession in the U.S. If so, she thinks the market could fall a total of as much as 32%. That would cost investors as much as $7 trillion dollars compared with the market's record high last week, about double the current loss.

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The sudden bout of pessimism on Wall Street is more unusual than you would think. Fear in financial markets markets, like anywhere else, is contagious. Still, the usual advice that investors should use such downturns to "buy on the dip" has long been conventional wisdom among investment pros, especially in recent years. Veteran Wall Street strategists are usually the most stoic about stock market drops. Star strategists like Goldman's Abby Joseph Cohen regularly rescued the market with a bullish call even as stocks were plunging. 

Today, few seem bold — or foolish — enough to say that the coronavirus-induced dip is one investors should put their money on. 

"There are a lot fewer people saying 'buy' this time around," said Birinyi Associates' Jeff Rubin. "The uncertainty reminds me of 2008. You can't just plug the coronavirus into your earnings model."

The reason for such deep uncertainty could be that unlike, say, inflation spikes or economic slowdowns or rising interest rates, the coronavirus itself is one very big unknown.

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Another reason Wall Street pros seem unwilling to say stocks will bounce back quickly is because the coronavirus is exposing what has been a long-time weakness for the market. Stock prices were boosted much of the past decade by an expectation that corporate profits would continue to grow at double-digit rates. That prediction has persisted even though U.S. GDP growth has been stuck around 2%. 

So where does the rest of the double-digit earnings growth come from? Overseas.

"Globalization has driven the bull market," said veteran Wall Street strategist Ed Yardeni. "We have been in an environment where the U.S. economy has been more and more dependent on the global economy in a good way."

President Donald Trump's protectionist trade policies had already put a question mark on how much longer U.S. companies can depend on growth from sales in China and elsewhere. The virus puts future earnings from overseas markets for U.S. companies seem at even greater risk. 

Yardeni also said it shows that companies may have to spend more corporate money than they thought to shock-proof their global supply chains. "Shifting production from China to Vietnam may not be a good enough contingency plan," he said.

None of this has stopped Wall Street from trying to offer trading advice, even if the best advice is often to do nothing. Wells Fargo analysts on Thursday recommended that clients sell the shares of companies that are "exposed to global growth." That includes industrial, energy and other companies that deal in commodities. 

Where does Wells Fargo think investors should put their money? Communications services, namely media and internet stocks. It's an investment thesis based on the idea that, because of the virus, more of us will either be stuck inside or need to communicate remotely with co-workers, friends and family. 

That prescription suggests that coronavirus fears — and their impact on the economy — won't be over anytime soon.

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