Analysts Get More Bearish as Rally Rolls On

Updated from 3:41 p.m. ET to reflect market close, additional analyst commentary from S&P Capital IQ.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Wall Street analysts are historically a bullish lot but the 20%-plus surge in the major U.S. equity indices since early October has eroded some of that optimism of late.

According to FactSet Research, the total percentage of buy ratings for S&P 500 companies has dropped to 51% as of March 1 vs. 54% on Dec. 31. The slack was picked up by hold ratings, which went to 44% from 42%, and sell ratings, now 5% vs. 4% at year-end. Those percentages are based on a total of 11,035 ratings on S&P 500 companies, FactSet said.

This was the second month in a row that analysts reduced their buy ratings, while increasing hold and sell ratings. Seven of the 10 sectors within the index saw a decrease in buy ratings with the financials, a market leader so far this year, hit hardest with a 5% decline.

Not a monumental shift in sentiment by any stretch -- and a logical byproduct of the rally -- but it's worth nothing because similar conditions set in roughly around this time last year.

"The percentage of Buy ratings at month end hasn't been this low and the percentage of Hold ratings hasn't been this high since the end of March 2011, which was one month prior to the start of a 17% decline in the price of the S&P 500 from April 30 through September 30," wrote John Butters, senior analyst at FactSet.

Interestingly, the target prices of analysts have climbed higher even as they've tempered their recommendations. FactSet said 369 of the 500 companies in the S&P 500 -- 74% -- have seen an increase in their mean target price since the start of 2012.

That's pushed the bottoms-up price target for the S&P 500 to 1503.03, up 3.3% so far this year. The targets of sell-side analysts are referred to as "bottoms-up," while those of investment strategists and economists are designated as "top-down." The top-down target is currently 1410, 6.6% below the bottoms-up target.

"The last time the month-end bottoms-up target price for the index was this high was August 2011 (1509.62), which was one month prior to a 21% increase in the price of the S&P 500 from Sept. 30, 2011 through Feb. 29, 2011," Butters noted.

The companies with the highest percentage of buy ratings are Snap-On ( SNA) at 100%; Halliburton ( HAL), 97%; American Tower ( AMT), 92%; Express Scripts ( ESRX), 91%; along with National Oilwell Varco ( NOV) and McKesson ( MCK), both at 90%.

As for what often seems like the world's most beloved stock, 89% of analysts covering Apple ( AAPL) rate it at buy. The stock has lived up to the bullishness and then some this year, soaring 34% to push the company's market cap above $500 billion. The shares, which hit a new 52-week high of $548.21 on Thursday, close at $545.18 on Friday, up 71 cents.

Check out TheStreet's quote page for Apple for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more.

The companies with the highest percentage of sell ratings are Sears Holdings Corp. ( SHLD) at 67%; Lexmark International ( LXK) at 43%; Federated Investors ( FII) at 35%; Whirlpool ( WHR) at 33%; and Consolidated Edison ( ED) at 32%.

The growing pessimism about some of the above names is at least in part the result of the dramatic run-ups many of these stocks have seen this the start of the year. Through Thursday, Sears was the biggest gainer in the S&P 500 year-to-date, up nearly 118%, and the stock was jumping another 10% on Friday as company said its Canada division was shuttering three locations. Even reporting a massive quarterly loss on Feb. 23 has barely slowed the ascent of Sears' shares.

Also cracking the top five for S&P 500 percentage gainers in 2012 was Whirlpool with a 57% advance through Thursday. Despite that surge, shares of the appliance maker are down 8% in the past year, and the company missed Wall Street's earnings expectations by 11% in its latest quarter on Feb. 1.

Another volatile name, Netflix ( NFLX) is also representative of this trend.

The DVD-by-mail and streaming content company made the top ten of companies with the highest percentage of sell ratings at 28% vs. 58% of analysts at hold and just 14% at buy. The stock has been a big winner in 2012, up 63%, behind only Sears, after being decimated in 2011 following a series of major management missteps.

Check out TheStreet's quote page for Netflix for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more.

The major U.S. equity indices finished down incrementally on Friday, taking a breather after a week where the Dow Jones Industrial Average notched a close above 13,000; the Nasdaq Composite briefly peeked above 3,000; and the S&P 500 pushed through resistance at 1370.

Year-to-date, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 6.2%, although it dipped this week for the first time in three weeks; the S&P 500 has advanced nearly 9%, gaining in eight of nine weeks this year, and the Nasdaq Composite soaring 14.2%.

Despite the market's resilience, Mark Arbeter, chief technical strategist at S&P Capital IQ, continues to foresee a coming pullback for the S&P 500.

"We are still looking for a minor top in the major indices in the near term, as the market is very overbought, in our view, with momentum divergences with price and internal data, and the majority of sentiment indicators at or near extremes," he wrote in commentary on Friday. "In addition, the S&P 500 has run into potentially stiff chart resistance from the 2011 highs, while the Dow Jones Industrials, the NASDAQ and the S&P MidCap 400 deal with the big round numbers of 13,000, 3,000 and 1,000, respectively. In other words, a trifecta of thousand point markers."

Arbeter thinks the selloff -- he's looking for a decline of 3-5% in the S&P 500 -- could quick and ugly if it comes.

"We think the next pullback could be particularly sharp due to the price structure of many indices as well as individual stocks," he wrote. "There is very little chart support beneath the market, so when the drop comes, don't get your hands in the way."

He continued: "For instance, we believe there is not very good chart support for the S&P 500 until way down in the 1265 to 1,270 region, which would equate to an 8% haircut for the index, a little larger than what we are currently looking for, but certainly a possibility, in our view."

The strategist estimates chart support for the Dow is about 6% below current levels, while support for the Nasdaq is around 11% below where it's trading.

-- Written by Michael Baron in New York.

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