Warning: The bear isn't hibernating yet

Some fear the bear will return in April. Even if the economy has hit bottom, the news may just be 'less bad'; GM, bank stress tests and earnings are concerns.

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By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- March came in like a bear and out like a bull on Wall Street. But will the bull stick around or will the bear return to try and prove T.S. Eliot right about April being the cruelest month?

The S&P 500 fell nearly 8% during the first six trading days of the month but surged nearly 18% after that to finish the month up 8.5%. The stunning rally in the latter part of the month came despite more bad news about the economy and Corporate America.

That's led some investing experts to question whether the recent rally has legs. There are growing fears that the Tilt-A-Whirl otherwise known as the stock market is ready to start spinning madly out of control once again.

John Lynch, chief market analyst with Evergreen Investments, predicts that the markets will test the early March lows once again before stocks finally hit bottom.

Simply put, he said there's still the potential for more grim economic and corporate news out there that hasn't gone away just because the markets popped at the end of last month. He thinks the rebound, once it unfolds, will be gradual, and not steep.

"GM (GM, Fortune 500) and Chrysler are still in trouble and we've got the bank stress tests coming," Lynch said, referring to the Treasury Department's plan to determine how well-capitalized struggling big banks like Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) are to withstand a longer recession. Those tests are expected to be completed by the end of April.

"The worst is probably over for the economy but investors need to be prepared for a couple of quarters that are simply less bad. This recovery is going to be shaped like a short, fat lowercase u and not a capital V," Lynch added.

Bill Stone, chief Investment Strategist with PNC Wealth Management in Philadelphia, said it's looking like the economy probably shrunk by at least 5% in the first quarter, following a more than 6% drop in the fourth quarter of 2008. He added that the job market is still in bad shape as well.

So with that in mind, Stone agreed with Lynch that it would not be a major surprise if stocks retreated back toward this year's lows. "It's never safe to say we've hit bottom," he said.

Earnings are going to 'stink'

The upcoming onslaught of corporate earnings reports this month could also weigh on the markets.

According to John Butters, director of U.S. earnings research for Thomson Reuters, analysts are predicting that first-quarter profits for the S&P 500 will fall 36% from a year ago. That would be the seventh consecutive quarter of declining earnings.

What's more, profits in all ten sectors of the economy are expected to fall during the quarter. Butters said that this has never happened in the more than ten years that Thomson Reuters has been tracking profit growth by sector.

"At the start of this downturn, most of the problems had been concentrated in the financials sector and, to a lesser extent, consumer discretionary companies like autos, retailers and homebuilders," Butters said. "Now, there is weakness across the board."

Stone said most investors realize that first quarter results for most companies will be short on good news. So it will be more important to hear what executives have to say about the future. Unfortunately, he thinks most CEOs will clam up and not take the risk of sounding too optimistic.

"Nobody's buying stocks today for first quarter earnings. They're going to stink," he said. "If we get some sort of guidance about when things are picking up, that could be good news, but my suspicion is more and more companies will just say times are rough and that they have no visibility."

Still, Lynch is worried that investors, particularly in bank stocks, may be underestimating just how bad results will be for the quarter. Several bank CEOs, including the heads of Citi, BofA and JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), helped spark a rally in bank stocks by saying they were profitable in January and February.

But Lynch pointed out the CEOs were careful to say they were profitable on an operating basis. Since banks still are likely to be forced to book massive losses on soured loans and securities in their portfolios, he thinks "more writedowns are looming" and that "earnings are not going to be as rosy as Wall Street is anticipating."

Recovery may be closer, but the road to it is full of potholes

Despite their pessimism though, neither Stone nor Lynch consider themselves to be overly bearish. They just simply think investors need a reality check after the big runup in stocks.

Stone said that it's encouraging that the government has taken many bold actions to try and get the economy back on track -- such as the stimulus package, the Treasury Department's new public-private partnership to buy banks' toxic assets and the Federal Reserve's plan to jumpstart lending to consumers and small businesses with its Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF.

Stone thinks many of these initiatives will eventually work. And he adds that many stocks are attractively valued for the long-haul.

But the climb out of this recession is going to take some time. It won't be a smooth process, and at times, investors may show their frustration.

"Is the market going to be patient? There are so many moving pieces to the recovery plan and it opens itself up to things going wrong along the way," Stone said. "So for the short-term, the easiest forecast to make right now is for more volatility."

Lynch shared that assessment.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel. The economy and markets always find a way to adapt and innovate. But it's never pretty though," he said.

And that's exactly why Lynch is hoping that there is a sell-off sooner rather than later. The S&P 500 is currently hovering around 800, up from its early March closing low of about 677. If the markets continue to surge without evidence that the economy or earnings are finally ready to rebound, the eventual pullback would be much worse.

"I'd rather the market test the lows after the S&P 500 hits 800 than 1000. A euphoric rally without fundamentals justifying it would put too much air back into the market," he said.  To top of page

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