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It’s Late: So Says the Profits Spread and Leading Indicators

Key Points

  • Third quarter earnings season is underway, so it’s time to look under the hood.

  • A wide gap between S&P 500 profits and the broader NIPA measure from the BEA supports a late-cycle view.

  • The late-cycle view is also supported by weakening leading indicators.

Today’s report will be two-pronged. In addition to being in the midst of third quarter earnings season, we also got the latest Leading Economic Index (LEI) from The Conference Board on Friday. Let’s start with earnings.

The table below comes from Refinitiv—one of the most widely-followed sources for consensus earnings estimates—and includes earnings for all 11 S&P 500 sectors, as well as the index itself. The first column shows full year 2018; which obviously saw very strong earnings courtesy of corporate tax cuts. Even before accumulating additional hits to earnings in 2019 such as tariffs and weak global growth; there was an inevitable “base effect” problem for 2019 in that earnings were being compared to the tax-boosted year of 2018.

Earnings Table

Source: Charles Schwab, I/B/E/S data from Refinitiv, as of 10/21/2019.

The “good” news is that heading into both the first and second quarters of this year, expectations were that S&P 500 earnings would be in negative territory on a year/year basis; but ultimately the bar was set low enough for companies to collectively eke out a gain. As you can see above, the weakness in earnings over the past three quarters has been concentrated in the energy and materials sectors; but even the technology sector has been in the red.

So far this reporting season, the year-over-year “blended” (reported plus expected) earnings growth estimate is -3.1%; with a better -0.6% if the energy sector is excluded. Of the 75 companies that have reported earnings to date for the third quarter, 82.7% have beaten estimates and 12% have reported below estimates. In a typical quarter (since 1994) 65% of companies have beaten estimates, with 20% missing. The caveat is that the beats tend to come earlier in the reporting season; so it’s likely the beat rate will come down.

Mirror image

It’s not just the difference in earnings growth rates between this year and last year that’s distinctive. It’s also what happened to P/E multiples each year. In essence this year has been the mirror image of last year; as you can see in the chart below.

2019 Mirror Image of 2018

S&P 500 Earnings PE Growth

Source: Charles Schwab, I/B/E/S data from Refinitiv, as of 10/21/19.

Whereas 2018 was a gangbusters year for earnings, P/E multiples contracted. On the other hand, 2019 has so far brought only marginal earnings growth, yet P/E multiples have expanded. Why you ask? It largely has to do with the macro/monetary environment. Last year, the Federal Reserve was raising interest rates, and financial conditions were tightening (especially in the fourth quarter). That is typically a recipe for lower multiples for the simple reason that earnings are less valuable when interest rates are rising and financial conditions are tightening. In addition, the stock market tends to discount forward earnings; and it was glaringly clear that 2019 was going to be a weak year relative to 2018.

Fast-forward to this year: the Fed went into pause mode in January and began cutting rates in July; alongside generally-looser financial conditions (especially in the first half). Additionally, the stock market is discounting an expected rebound in earnings in 2020. That has been a recipe for upward pressure on multiples. The rub is that unless there is a trade truce or some sort of deal; and if capital spending continues to weaken, 2020’s earnings estimates are likely too high.

I believe that we have probably squeezed about as much macro-based multiple expansion as we’re going to get; which means the market may “require” earnings to begin to do more of the heavy lifting. The outlook is less-than-certain. 

What say you NIPA?

Relative to the standard of S&P 500 profits, there is a broader measure that is released alongside U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)—incorporating all public, private and S corporations. It’s the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) data assembled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA); with the data primarily compiled from tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Why is the distinction important? Unlike public companies, private companies have no incentive to inflate their taxable profits; while smaller/domestic private companies are often a better leading indicator of the economy’s trajectory. 

As you can see in the chart below, there is presently an extremely wide divergence between the S&P 500 index level and NIPA profits—similar to the gaps that developed around the past two recessions. This doesn’t necessarily mean impending doom; but does mean the direction of profits from here matters a lot. Ideally NIPA profits catch up to the S&P 500; but based on history, it’s more likely to be the opposite convergence.

Wide Divergence Between S&P and Profits

Corporate Profits vs. S&P 500

Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg, Bureau of Economic Analysis. S&P 500 as of 9/30/2019. *Profits as of 6/30/2019 and with inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments.

Additionally, imbedded in the NIPA data above is a significant downward revision the BEA made to those profits this past summer. It was driven by the BEA’s initial underestimation of both unit labor costs and interest expense. You can see the pre- and post-revision lines for NIPA profits below.

Significant Downward Benchmark Profits Revision

Corporate Profits Revisions

Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Federal Bank of St. Louis, as of 6/30/2019. Pre-revision represents 3/31/2014-3/31/2019. *With inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments.

Regardless of whether ultimately S&P 500 earnings can manage a gain for the quarter; the spread noted above is yet another indication that we are likely firmly in the latter part of the economic cycle. Speaking of which, the job of leading indicators is to give us a heads-up as to when we’re likely facing an inflection point from expansion to recession.

Follow the leader

The Conference Board released its Leading Economic Index (LEI) on Friday, covering the month of September. The index fell by -0.1% after a downwardly-revised -0.2% in August. Among the LEI’s 10 components, strength in the Leading Credit Index and the stock market failed to offset negative contributions from the ISM New Orders Index and building permits; while the yield spread was a negative contributor for the fourth consecutive month. You’ll note, however, that both the 10-year/3-month and 10-year/2-year yield curves have since un-inverted; which is reflected in the table further down.

As you can see in the chart below, on a six-month rate of change basis, the LEI is plumbing the lows of the past two “mini recessions” since the end of the financial crisis; but still above the average decline heading into the past eight recessions.

LEI Descending Again

LEI 6-month %-Chg

Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg, The Conference Board, as of 9/30/2019.

Let’s take a closer look at the components of the LEI. As I often remind investors, when it comes to economic data and tying it to stock market behavior; or using it to make a judgement about where we are in the cycle; better or worse tends to matter more than good or bad. That’s why, when I update the table below every month, I note not only the level of each component; but importantly their trends. It’s a bit of a sea of red in the trend column; which bears watching for further deterioration (and a more elevated risk of recession).

LEI Table

Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg, The Conference Board, as of 9/30/2019.

Finally, a new table I had my research associate, Kevin Gordon, put together shows the history of the current component makeup of the LEI (the caveat being that the components have changed over time as The Conference Board “refits” them to reflect the most relevant data during each cycle). It shows the percentage change in each component from the peak during each cycle to the first month of each recession; with the medians shown. Then, the final column denotes the change from the peak in this cycle for those components that are indeed past their peak (at least for now).

LEI Peak to Trough

Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg, The Conference Board, as of 9/30/2019.

The combination of weak earnings growth, limited macro support for boosting multiples and leading indicators that are decelerating yet again imply the late-cycle view for the economy should remain the consensus. It doesn’t necessarily imply doom for stocks; but we continue to recommend investors keep their equity exposure at a level no higher than their long-term strategic allocation; while using volatility to consider rebalancing more frequently.

Next Steps

Important Disclosures:

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results and the opinions presented cannot be viewed as an indicator of future performance.

Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur management fees, costs and expenses and cannot be invested in directly. For more information on indexes please see www.schwab.com/indexdefinitions.

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