Profits Are Falling (Again)

Someone once told me that the price of a stock should only change four times per year – when investors receive new financial information about the business in the form of an earnings release. Obviously, it doesn’t work like that, but it’s an interesting idea.

In any case, earnings season is upon us and based on the third quarter data so far from FactSet, it doesn’t look pretty.  While only 58 companies in the S&P 500 have reported so far, the analysts had already set the tone with an estimated earnings decline of -5.1 percent for the quarter as of Sept 30.

If earnings are lower, which we should expect, it will be the first time since the 2008 financial crisis that earnings have fallen for two quarters in a row.  Like last quarter, though, energy stocks are a big contributor to the profit declines.

At this point, and it is admittedly early so far, if energy were excluded, earnings would actually be growing by 2.8 percent instead of the current decline.  I find it interesting that despite the horrendous year-over-year profit decline in energy of -64 percent, analysts were expecting worse and all so far have beaten expectations.

It’s too soon to say, but perhaps analysts are too bearish, since at this point 81 percent of the companies that have reported have beaten expectations.  At this point, the blended earnings rate is -4.6 percent.

The themes surrounding the current earnings season are not surprising: slow global growth, a strong US dollar and lower oil and gas prices.  There’s nothing new about those factors, but I was surprised to read that higher wages have been an issue as well.

At this point, analysts think that earnings growth may not be in the cards until the first quarter next year and are estimating a decline of 0.9 percent in the fourth quarter, although it’s pretty early to have much confidence in the estimates.

The point, though, is that markets are already pricing in the weak earnings – the details are new as each company reports, but it’s not a surprise that earnings are lower, especially in energy.

This week is fairly heavy in terms of earnings releases – by Friday night the number of reporting companies will have grown to 176 and we’ll have more information about where we stand now and what companies expect in the near future.