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NEW YORK: With a miserable first half for the stock market now in the history books, investors are assessing whether the U.S. economy can avoid a significant downturn as the Federal Reserve raises rates to fight the worst inflation in decades.
The answer to that question stands to have a direct impact on markets. Strategists say an economic slump coupled with weak corporate earnings could push the S&P 500 .SPX lower by at least another 10%, compounding losses that have already pushed the benchmark index down 18% year-to-date.
Conversely, in a scenario that includes solid profit increases and moderating inflation, stocks could bounce to around where they started the year, according to some analysts’ price targets.
For now, "investors are anticipating that we are seeing a slowdown," said Lindsey Bell, chief markets and money strategist at Ally. "The big question is how deep is this slowdown going to be?”
The case for an imminent economic downturn took a hit on Friday, after a Labor Department report showed employers hired far more workers than expected in June, giving the Fed ammunition to deliver another 75 basis-point interest rate hike this month.,
"The June employment report indicates that the economy is neither on the cusp of a recession - much less already in one - nor in an overheated state," Oxford Economics said in a note.
It predicted more market volatility "amid heightened speculation over what the Fed will do."
More key information on the course of the economy is expected later this month, as second-quarter earnings reports flood in over the next few weeks and investors parse fresh data, including Wednesday’s closely watched consumer prices report for June.
Though the Fed has said it is confident in achieving a so-called soft landing by bringing down inflation without upsetting the economy, some investors believe this year’s steep stock declines suggest a degree of economic slowdown is already baked in to asset prices.
The S&P 500 .SPX, for instance, has fallen as low as 23.6% from its January record high this year, in line with the 24% median decline the index has registered in past recessions, indicating that "at least some of the challenging environment is reflected in stock prices," Keith Lerner, co-chief investment officer at Truist Advisory Services, said in a report.
Recessions are officially called in hindsight, with the National Bureau of Economic Research declaring one when there has been a "significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months."