CHICAGO, Jan. 31, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Zacks Research Equity Strategist, Dirk Van Dijk says that S&P 500 earnings are continuing to show red ink. He tracks companies on the Zacks.com web site, naming names, while forecasting trends for the months ahead.
Earnings Stronger, but Still Weak
This is the weakest start to an earnings season since the depths of the Great Recession. In most recent quarters we have started out of the gate much faster than this, only to fade towards these levels.
Total net income for the 183 that have reported is 7.08% above a year ago. That is a big improvement over the negative 3.79% a week ago when just 70 firms had reported. It is still less than half the 14.82% growth rate that the same 183 firms reported in the third quarter. The picture is just a little bit better if we take the Financials out of the picture. Without them, the year-over-year rise in net income is 11.84%, down from 16.1% growth in the third quarter.
The bar is also set low for the remaining 317 firms, and significantly lower than the results we have seen so far. They are expected to see year-over-year growth of just 1.93%. If we exclude the Financial sector, earnings are expected to be 2.02% below last year's. That is far below the 15.99% total and 19.16% ex-Financial growth those 317 reported in the third quarter. In other words, we have started out weak, and it is expected to get worse.
Revenue growth has held up better, with the 183 reporting 6.05% growth. Most of the revenue weakness though has come from the financials. If we exclude the Financials that have reported, revenue is up 9.05% year over year. The 317 are expected to see revenue growth to slow to 3.08% in total and 7.56% excluding the Financials. In the third quarter, the 317 reported revenue growth of 13.16% in total and 14.18% excluding the financials.
Net Margin Expansion Ending
With revenue growth slowing but holding up better than net income growth, it means that the net margin expansion game is coming to an end. It has been a very big part of the spectacular earnings growth that we have seen coming out of the Great Recession. For the 183, net margins have come in at 11.32%, up from 11.21% a year ago, but down from 11.82% in the third quarter. For the 317, margins are expected to be much lower, but they are lower margin businesses to begin with. They, however, are also expected to fall, dropping to 7.42% from 7.51% last year, and well below the 7.78% in the third quarter.
Excluding Financials the picture is even worse, with net margins of just 6.90% expected, down from 7.57% a year ago and 7.96% in the third quarter. While in an absolute sense, those are still very healthy net margins -- much higher than the average of the last 50 years or so -- they are no longer expanding. Then again, it was unrealistic to expect that they would always rise. It does mean that earnings growth is going to be harder to come by going forward.
On an annual basis, net margins continue to march northward, but we are beginning to see cracks there as well. In 2008, overall net margins were just 5.88%, rising to 6.27% in 2009. They hit 8.51% in 2010 and are expected to continue climbing to 9.04% in 2011 and 9.26% in 2012. The pattern is a bit different, particularly during the recession, if the Financials are excluded, as margins fell from 7.78% in 2008 to 6.93% in 2009, but have started a robust recovery and rose to 8.12% in 2010. They are expected to rise to 8.67% in 2011. However, they are expected to drop to and 8.62% in 2012.
Estimate Revisions Picking Up
Estimate revisions activity is past its seasonal low, and rising very fast. In previous earnings seasons, we have generally seen a bounce in the revisions ratio, as the analysts have reacted to better than expected earnings and the outlooks on the conference calls. So far there is no evidence of that happening. The revisions ratio for FY1, which is mostly 2011 earnings now, stands at 0.50, or two cuts for every increase.
The cuts are very widespread, with only a single sector, Transports, seeing more increases than cuts. Eight of the sectors, including big ones like Energy, Health Care, and Utilities are seeing more than twice as many cuts as increases. The picture for FY2 ( mostly 2012) is only slightly better, with a revisions ratio of just 0.61. Only three sectors, Transports, Construction and Business Service are seeing more increases than cuts. The widespread cuts are also confirmed by the ratio of firms with rising mean estimates to falling mean estimates, which now stand at 0.52 and 0.59, respectively.
Relative to recent quarters, we are off to an exceptionally weak start, but we are still seeing more positive than negative surprises. We did get some very big and significant positive surprises in the last week, most notably Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT). As the earnings season has progressed, things have been getting a bit better, but only moved the season from being very poor, to Mediocre at best. This is happening when the bar is set at its lowest point in a very long time. For the remaining firms, the bar is also set low, however given the results so far, that really does not provide any assurance that they will be able to clear it.
The market has been off to a very strong start of the year, despite the weak early results. Valuations are still compelling, if somewhat less so than a few months ago. However, if the results do not improve, it strikes me as likely that we will at least pause for a while.
The upcoming week will be a busy one, with 99 S&P 500 firms scheduled to report. Thus by next week, we will be well past the halfway point in terms of the number of reports. We are already past it based on the total earnings for the quarter.
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