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Stock Drubbings Finally Convince Holdout Analysts to Get Real

Ridiculed for stubbornly hanging on to their bullish outlooks, analysts are finally giving in.

(Bloomberg) -- Even diehard bulls are yielding to recession angst. 

Wall Street analysts, the majority of whom clung to buy ratings and optimistic profit forecasts as markets cratered, are showing signs of giving in. On a net basis, they’ve issued more than 500 downgrades on share-price targets and earnings estimates for S&P 500 stocks over the past five sessions, data compiled by Sundial Capital Research and Bloomberg show. 

Such a frenetic pace of downgrades is rare. It’s only happened four other times since the data began in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. 

Top-down prognosticators who make market predictions based on broad macroeconomic trends are dialing back their optimism, too. Strategists at UBS Group AG and Evercore ISI became the latest forced to tame their outlook. 

Analysts had been ridiculed for stubbornly hanging on to their bullish outlooks -- many stocks still carry forecasts that require a doubling in price or more to hit -- as shares slipped into a bear market. The latest flurry of downward revisions probably means little to investors who have slashed their equity exposure to multiyear lows. 

Yet the souring sentiment is a welcome development to market watchers on the lookout for further signs of capitulation that they hope will set the stage for a sustained equity recovery. It has also lowered the bar for corporate America to clear when their report cards for the second quarter start rolling in.

“Analysts want to get out in front of what is widely assumed to be bruising earnings reports starting this week,” Jason Goepfert, chief research officer at Sundial, wrote in a note. “With a lot of career risk, analysts suffer from many of the same biases as investors, and the herd mentality is evident when markets are doing well (or poorly). They’ve started to panic recently, which has been a consistent signal to do the opposite.” 

Stocks resumed selling on Monday after the S&P 500 posted its second weekly gains in three. After sinking 24% from January through its June trough, the benchmark index has been stuck in a 250-point range, failing for a second time to break out at the resistance near 3,900. 

Analysts had been slow to react to the selloff that has spurred traders to dump stocks en mass. Their estimates for 2023 profits have stayed buoyant this year despite the Federal Reserve’s aggressive inflation-battling campaign and a war raging in Europe. While some have lowered their price targets, the reduction paled in comparison to the broad selloff that has erased as much as $15 trillion from equity values. 

In the previous four instances where analysts rushed for downgrades, stocks staged a strong rebound in the following months once all the fears proved overblown. 

Whether the pattern can repeat is anyone’s guess. Right now, analysts expect S&P 500 firms to earn $246.1 a share next year. That implies a price-earnings multiple of roughly 16 -- not overly expensive, but not screaming cheap either. 

To Keith Parker, head of US equity strategy at UBS, a lot depends on whether a recession plays out. Should consumers hit the brake on spending and lead to a shallow contraction, the S&P 500 would fall to 3,400 by December. But a scenario where inflation slows notably and growth stays solid would point to a potential upside to 4,500. 

While Parker expects the economy to avoid a recession this year, a slowdown, along with persistent inflation and rising real yields, prompted him to cut his year-end target for the index to 4,150 from 4,850. 

He’s not alone to have scaled back his optimism amid a cacophony of hurdles. Julian Emanuel, chief equity and quantitative strategist at Evercore ISI, just trimmed his S&P 500 forecast by 100 points to 4,200 over the weekend.

“A slowdown is unfolding,” Emanuel said. “Combined with a stronger dollar, labor market strain, supply-chain issues, and inventory builds, margins and EPS are under pressure as prospective recession scenarios develop.”

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