Stocks: Brace for slower, bumpier ride higher

@CNNMoneyInvest April 3, 2012: 8:00 PM ET
u.s. stock market predictions

Investment strategists expect the S&P 500 will rise just 1.5% from its current level. While that's lackluster compared to the 12% gain logged during the first quarter, the small step higher would put the S&P 500 up more than 14% in 2012.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Wall Street just closed out its best first quarter in 14 years, but don't expect the impressive run to last forever.

Most experts think the recent momentum will slow, and say investors should be ready for a few dips along the way.

Investment strategists and money managers expect the S&P 500 will rise just 1.5% from its current level, according to an exclusive CNNMoney survey.

While that's lackluster compared with the 12% gain logged during the first three months of this year, the small step higher would put the S&P 500 up more than 14% in 2012 -- a far better return than last year's flat finish.

One reason stocks have been able to kick into high gear this year has been thanks to the European Central Bank's influx of cash into the European banking system, which has managed to stave off a credit crunch in Europe, said Kim Forrest, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group.

That has helped investors put Europe's debt crisis, which plagued the market throughout most of 2011, on the back burner for now. But worries that Greece may need another debt restructuring and concerns over Spain's debt problems are beginning to crop up, said Forrest.

Plus, doubts about how much longer China's economy can continue growing at a robust pace are also rising, added Forrest, whose year-end target for the S&P 500 stands at 1425.

CNNMoney survey: Where the markets are headed in 2012

"We think the news out of Europe and China could lessen the greed and increase the fear of investors," said Forrest. "That's going to add some volatility over the course of the year."

Forrest said she'll be closely tuning into second quarter earnings, as companies update their forecasts for the remainder of the year.

Some experts, however, are more optimistic about the global economy.

Make Europe's pain your gain

"Certainly China and other emerging markets have taken steps to ease their monetary policy and spur economic growth, and will probably continue to do so throughout most of this year, " said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank."But there's a lag time until you'll see those changes take effect."

While China's economy will likely continue to decelerate through the summer, growth should pick up toward the end of the year and help spark a rally, said McCain, who expects the S&P 500 to close 2012 around 1550, up 10% from its current level.

However, McCain warns that before that strong finish kicks in, there may be a few bumps along the way.

With the risk of a severe meltdown in Europe off the table, he forecasts a fairly modest pullback of about 10% in the near-term.

"So far we've been willing to focus on all the positive signs, but prospects are growing for a dip over the next few months," he said. "But soon after, we'll be back on track for a rising market that could hit some new highs." To top of page

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