No matter which way the stock market goes in 2019 — and Wall Street has ample arguments for either direction — expect it to be another gut-wrenching ride.
The market is facing a long list of challenges this upcoming year, from expectations for slower economic growth around the world to the restraining effect of rising interest rates. And the global trade war is still creating uncertainty as investors guess how much pain it will ultimately inflict.
All those risks have market strategists along Wall Street forecasting another turbulent year for stocks, and potentially one of the most difficult years for investors since the bull market began its record-setting run in 2009. That follows up on a 2018 where swings of hundreds of points within a single afternoon became fairly common for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
As 2018 showed, higher risk doesn't always mean higher rewards. As of Friday, all major U.S. stock indexes are down more than 8 percent for the year. And many strategists are forecasting a subdued performance for stocks in 2019.
"Ironically ... one would expect higher returns with higher risk, but for the past two years we've underscored a slightly more treacherous environment for investors: higher risk and lower returns," Vanguard's global chief economist Joe Davis said as he unveiled his forecasts.
He expects global stock markets to return 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent annually over the next 10 years, in dollar terms, versus the 12.6 percent they had provided annually since the market's bottom following the 2008 financial crisis.
A quick glance at the titles of the 2019 outlook reports for various investment houses shows the increased caution. "The end of easy" was Wells Fargo Investment Institute's title. "Navigating volatile markets" was UBS Asset Management's, and "Lower expectations" was Barclays'.
All the cross-currents pushing and pulling markets have analysts along Wall Street recommending a contrasting array of strategies. Some suggest focusing on stocks from emerging markets, where proponents say particularly sharp drops in price have left them looking cheap. Others say high-quality bonds look like the safest bet given all the expected turbulence. And some optimists are forecasting a big bounce-back year for U.S. stocks, which they say no longer look expensive relative to corporate earnings.
As investments of all types dropped this year, investor psychology underwent a reset. For most of the last decade, markets powered higher in a largely smooth and gradual way. That meant big rewards for investors who saw any dip as an opportunity to buy at lower prices. The market recovered from every wobble to set records again and again, often quite quickly.
But this year has been different. The S&P 500 is down 9.6 percent and is on pace for its first down year in a decade after including dividends. It also created a lot of heartburn getting there, with two separate drops of 10 percent over the course of the year.
"This is the brave new world for investors," said Rich Weiss, chief investment officer of multi-asset strategies at American Century Investments. "It's been nine years, 10 years, so it's going to be a shock to some of the newer investors who were not around in 2008 or in prior market turns."
Of course, no forecast is perfect. A year ago, Wall Street was broadly optimistic about stocks and was forecasting moderate gains, largely because economies around the world were growing in sync. But the optimism fell apart as the year progressed and growth rates diverged, in part because of rising trade tensions.
Much will hinge on how resilient the U.S. economy remains in 2019. It has been accelerating since emerging from the Great Recession in 2009, and it got a big boost this past year from tax cuts, which helped corporate profits surge at their fastest rates in eight years. The current economic expansion will surpass the 1991-2001 stretch as the longest on record if the economy avoids a recession through July. In the economy's favor are the still-strong job market and consumer confidence.
But concerns are rising that a recession may be possible in 2020 or even the latter parts of 2019. The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates — it indicated two more increases may arrive in 2019 following four this year— and other central banks are stepping off the accelerator on stimulus for their economies, which remove big supports. And if inflation spikes unexpectedly higher, it could push the Fed to get more aggressive about raising rates, which would further hinder growth.
The International Monetary Fund expects U.S. economic growth to slow to 2.5 percent next year from 2.9 percent in 2018. It's also forecasting slower growth in the euro area, Japan and China.
Analysts are likewise forecasting a slowdown in U.S. corporate profit growth, though still positive. That's key because stock prices tend to track with corporate earnings over the long term.
Wall Street expects S&P 500 earnings growth to drop by more than half from this year's 20.3 percent rate, in part because companies will no longer be getting the boost of the first year of new tax rates, according to FactSet. But the expected 7.9 percent growth rate is still a good one this far into an economic expansion.
It's this gain that has many strategists forecasting at least modest gains for stocks. Some strategists are forecasting the S&P 500 could end 2019 as high as 3,000, which would be a 24 percent leap from Friday's close.
At UBS Asset Management, the expectation is that U.S. market could return about 4 percent as global economic growth continues. European stocks could also return about 6 percent, said Ryan Primmer, head of investment solutions. But such gains would come with that one big catch.
"With higher volatility," he said, "it's going to feel a lot worse."