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Wall Street revamps 2024 S&P 500 targets after record-setting stock-market rally

By Isabel Wang

A record stock-market rally has caught many of Wall Street's top strategists flat-footed. Now, they're racing to catch up, updating their year-end S&P 500 targets.

Heading into 2024, Wall Street investment banks and research firms largely expected U.S. stocks to post positive yet underwhelming gains after a robust and forecast-defying 2023. Last year's rally left investors to worry whether stocks could build on their gains as interest-rate and inflation threats lingered.

But that cautious outlook was shattered. A renewed wave of AI enthusiasm and reassurance by the Federal Reserve that recent sticky inflation had not changed its plan for three interest rate cuts this year, have sent stocks on a seemingly relentless record-setting run.

The large-cap benchmark S&P 500 index SPX on Thursday notched its 20th all-time closing high in 2024, while the Nasdaq Composite COMP ended at its fourth all-time high and the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA scored its 16th record close so far this year, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

The stock rally has surprised Wall Street forecasters and forced some to bump up their predictions of where U.S. equities will go next.

At least six Wall Street banks have lifted their S&P 500 targets over the past two months.

On Monday, Oppenheimer Asset Management lifted its year-end target to 5,500 from 5,200, indicating additional upside of over 5% from Friday's closing level of 5,234.18, said a team of strategists led by John Stoltzfus, chief investment strategist and managing director. They said positive signs in earnings over the last two quarters, resilience in the economic growth and a "substantial capitulation" among the bears and bearish community all support their upgrade to S&P 500's outlook.

Oppenheimer's 5,500 price target appears to be one of the most bullish forecasts among Wall Street's biggest banks and research firms tracked by MarketWatch. Strategists at Société Générale on Thursday also lifted their year-end target to 5,500 from 4,750.

See: 'Keep buying the S&P 500,' says Wall Street's most bullish bank - hikes year-end target to 5,500

Earlier this month, Bank of America's Savita Subramanian and strategists at Barclays joined the bullish club in adopting 5,400 and 5,300 as their year-end targets for the S&P 500, respectively, pointing to resiliency in the economy and earnings strength from megacap technology stocks.

Goldman Sachs in February raised its forecast to 5,200, its second upward revision since late last year. The bank now falls in step with one of Wall Street's most bullish forecasters - Fundstrat's Tom Lee, who also sees a 5,200 finish after accurately foresaw 2023's bull market.

The estimates from strategists put the median target for the S&P 500 at 5,200 by the end of 2024, implying a decline of less than 1% from Friday's level, according to MarketWatch calculations. Heading into 2024, the median target was around 5,000 (see table below).

Not every bank has so far updated its price target for the S&P 500.

   Wall Street firm                  2024 S&P 500 target as of March 25  2024 S&P 500 target as of Dec. 11 
   Oppenheimer Asset Management      5500                                5200 
   Société Générale                  5500                                4750 
   Bank of America                   5400                                5000 
   Yardeni Research                  5400                                5400 
   Barclays                          5300                                4800 
   Goldman Sachs                     5200                                4700 
   UBS Global Wealth Management      5200 (5500 in upside scenario)      4700 
   Fundstrat                         5200                                5200 
   RBC                               5150                                5000 
   Citi                              5100                                5100 
   Deutsche Bank                     5100                                5100 
   BMO Capital Markets               5100                                5100 
   Wells Fargo Investment Institute  4900                                4625 
   Morgan Stanley                    4500                                4500 
   JPMorgan                          4200                                4200 
   Average                           5117                                4891 
   Median                            5200                                5000 
   Source: MarketWatch 

See: What 2024 S&P 500 forecasts really say about the stock market

It is worth noting that some of the doomsayers still sound pessimistic about the stock market in 2024. Morgan Stanley 's Michael Wilson remains one of the most bearish Wall Street strategists, telling Bloomberg last week that he is still standing by his year-end S&P 500 target of 4,500, which is around 14% below the index's Thursday level and 13.5% short of the median call of strategists tracked by MarketWatch.

JPMorgan Chase has the most bearish projection yet among Wall Street firms, seeing the S&P 500 finish the year at 4,200.

To be sure, investors should take forecasts with a grain of salt. MarketWatch reported that Wall Street strategists broadly failed to predict the stock-market rally in 2023, with their median target being around 10% lower than where the S&P 500 settled at the end of 2023.

So much for top-down estimates. How does Wall Street do based on a bottom-up approach?

John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet Research, looked at bottom-up target prices for the S&P 500 calculated by aggregating the median target price estimates, based on company-level estimates submitted by industry analysts, for all the companies in the index.

Historically, Wall Street analysts have overestimated the S&P 500 by about 3% to 8% on average over the past 20 years, according to Butters, but have tended to underestimate the closing price of the S&P 500 over the past few months.

Looking back at this time last year, the bottom-up target price was 4,635.48. Based on Wednesday's finish of 5,224.62, industry analysts in aggregate underestimated the closing price at the end of March 2024 by over 11% nearly a year ago, Butters said in a Thursday note.

Now, Wall Street analysts predict the S&P 500 to advance 7% over the next twelve months, to around 5,589 by March 2025, Butters said, based on the bottom-up approach.

U.S. stocks logged strong weekly gains on Friday, with the S&P 500 and Dow industrials each posting their best week of 2024, while the Nasdaq Composite saw its strongest week since January.

-Isabel Wang

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

03-25-24 1055ET

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