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Here’s what could rattle the stock market this year

<i>Courtney Crow/New York Stock Exchange/AP</i><br/>Specialist Patrick King works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
Courtney Crow/New York Stock Exchange/AP
Specialist Patrick King works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

By Paul R. La Monica, CNN Business

The stock market is like that old slogan for Timex watches. It takes a licking but keeps on ticking.

Sure, it’s been a rocky start to the year on Wall Street following a stellar 2021. The Dow is down about 1% and the S&P 500 has fallen 2%. Trading has been volatile. But the Dow and S&P are still each just 3% below their all-time highs.

Tech stocks have had a bit more of a wild ride. The Nasdaq is down 5% in 2022 and nearly 8% under its peak, putting it closer to a 10% drop known as a correction.

Yet every time it looks like stocks could be heading for an even steeper drop, investors come rushing back in to buy the dips.

Traders have so far mostly shrugged off temporary concerns about inflation and the Federal Reserve getting ready to raise interest rates, as well as fears over the impact that the Omicron variant of Covid-19 may have on the economy. Earnings growth has remained strong in spite of these factors.

“It’s been a Teflon market recently,” said Bill Sterling, global strategist with GW&K Investment Management, referring to the notoriously non-stick material. “Expectations have changed a bit with a rate hike cycle beginning sooner but the market is discounting that.”

So what needs to happen to really rattle Wall Street’s nerves in a meaningful fashion?

“I’m not surprised by the market’s resilience because the fundamentals for earnings and the economy are still strong,” said Larry Adam, chief investment officer with Raymond James. “But the markets are due in many ways for a pullback.”

Adam said investors need to keep an eye on the Fed. If it has to hike short-term interest rates even more than expected because of inflation, that could create more market jitters.

“Investors may get nervous about more volatility,” he said. “If the Fed is more aggressive, that could spook the markets.”

Rising bond yields still could be a problem

The prospect of meaningfully higher long-term interest rates could also slow the economy and put a dent in stock prices.

It’s a bit unclear why the 10-year Treasury bond yield still remains relatively low, at just about 1.77%, given the chances of rate hikes and the fact that inflation is so high. Consumer prices soared 7% over the past 12 months.

“The bond market is a mystery now with where inflation is. I don’t think rates will remain at these levels,” said Steve Wyett, chief investment strategist with BOK Financial.

Wyett added that investors need to keep an eye on Washington for the upcoming midterm elections in November. Investors may not be factoring in the possibility of more gridlock stalling stimulus efforts if Democrats lose control of the House and Senate, as some political pundits are predicting.

“We could have market volatility around the midterms, but that’s not in the forecasts just yet,” Wyett said.

Still, investors may continue to drown out any noise about politics, Covid and even inflation as long as corporate profits keep chugging along at a healthy clip.

According to forecasts from FactSet Research, analysts are still expecting earnings for the S&P 500 to rise nearly 10% from last year. Although that is a sharp slowdown from 2021’s expected profit growth of 45% from 2020’s Covid-induced lows, it still isn’t something to sneeze at.

“It could be a bumpier ride for stocks with more modest returns.” GW&K’s Sterling said. “But the outlook for profit growth is still solid.”

Stocks entered a bear market, albeit briefly, at the start of the pandemic. The major indexes fell more than 20% shortly after the first wave of the Covid-19 outbreak ground the US economy to a halt, but stocks soared back thanks to the reopening of the economy, vaccines and strong earnings.

So as long as the economy and profits keep growing, and vaccines and boosters prevent businesses from going into lockdown mode again, Wall Street may not actually be ripe for another bear run just yet.

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