At the end of the day it’s still earnings that matter most. As the expectation ratio has shown, the stock market has remained resilient primarily due to the fact that expectations for earnings have become very low and more corporations are outperforming the low hurdles. But a look under the hood has shed some light on the true strength of these earnings. We’ve seen a common trend of late. Companies are missing top line estimates and handily beating bottom line estimates. The two most recent examples of this phenomenon were RIMM and FedEx. 72% of the S&P 500 reported revenues that were lower than the same quarter last year. As corporations shed workers and other costs they’re actually able to outpace their revenue declines with cost cuts. While we’re still seeing very weak revenues figures (which is representative of the weak economic landscape) we’re actually seeing some margin stabilization and subsequently better than expected bottom line growth. This chart from JP Morgan shows the trend at hand:
GDP is expected to climb substantially this quarter. We’re also seeing some stabilization in overall economic productivity. Meanwhile, on the cost side we’re continuing to see very low levels of hiring, low labor costs, low business spending and inventories. Revenues are down just 17% for the overall S&P 500 on a year over year basis, but as you can see in the following two charts spending and inventories have nosedived:
As JP Morgan notes, there is no evidence that this is sustainable or positive for the markets in the long-term though:
Corporate defense of profits and financial standing, that is continuing in the current quarter, is apparently being rewarded in the credit markets. Corporate spreads over Treasuries and corporate bond yields have continued to decline in the past several weeks even as other longer-term market interest rates were rising.
The implications of corporate financial performance for economic growth over the coming year is uncertain. Business will emerge from recession in better financial health than compared to exits from past recessions, and with internal funds running well above capital spending. These conditions might argue for a relatively robust corporate expansion.
But for this to happen, the extreme caution that produced these financial results has to change. And there is no indication that the corporate sector will turn substantially
more expansive any time soon.
Cost cuts are no recipe for organic growth. That can only be achieved through top line growth. The implications here are that we are likely to see another quarter of “better than expected” bottom line earnings as analysts have adjusted their EPS estimates very little over the prior quarter. This could further juice the stock market. The more important factor to keep in mind, however, is that this is no recipe for long-term growth. We will need to see a sharp expansion in the economy before revenue growth returns to the earnings picture. For now, the positive results are nothing more than defensive posturing by corprations. If the economy doesn’t turn up sharply heading into Q3 and Q4 it’s likely that investors will turn fearful of this false bottom line growth.
Mr. Roche is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Discipline Funds.Discipline Funds is a low fee financial advisory firm with a focus on helping people be more disciplined with their finances.
He is also the author of Pragmatic Capitalism: What Every Investor Needs to Understand About Money and Finance, Understanding the Modern Monetary System and Understanding Modern Portfolio Construction.