Plenty of Data, But Still No Answers

The earnings season isn’t over yet, with more than 230 companies including 8 S&P 500 members reporting results this week. But for all practical purposes, the reporting cycle is over now, as we have already seen results from 487 of the S&P 500 members.

Earnings aren’t in focus this week; the focus is instead on the economy, with the docket full of top-tier reports. The problem is that economic data lately has been overly distorted by this year’s unusually harsh winter. This week’s reports, particularly Monday’s Manufacturing ISM and Friday’s non-farm payroll readings, will likely reflect the same type of distortions. As such, we will have a lot of data to look at this week, but we wouldn’t be able to make much sense of it.

On the earnings front, the retail sector has been in focus in recent days. Confirming earlier fears, the Q4 earnings season has been a tough one for the sector. Not only has earnings and revenue growth for the sector been the weakest relative to recent quarters, but most have guided lower for the current period as well. The chart below shows how 2014 Q1 earnings expectations for the sector have evolved since the Q4 reporting season got underway.


In fairness to Retail, they are hardly the only one suffering negative estimate revisions as 2014 Q1 estimates for most of the other sectors have been moving in that direction as well. As has been the case for more than a year now, predominant tone of management guidance was negative this earnings season as well, prompting estimates for Q1 to come down.

The chart below shows the evolution of 2014 Q1 earnings estimates for the S&P 500 as a whole since the start of the current earnings season.

S&P 500 earnings
S&P 500 earnings

Q4 Earnings Scorecard (as of Friday, 2/28/2014)

Total earnings for the 487 S&P 500 members that have reported already, combined accounting for 97.5% of the index’s total market capitalization,  are up +9.3% from the same period last year, with a ‘beat ratio’ of 67.1% and a median surprise of +2.4%. Total revenues are barely in the positive column, up only +0.7%, with a revenue ‘beat ratio’ of 59.3% and a median surprise of +0.6%.

More companies have beat earnings and revenue expectations than has been the case in recent quarters, as the chart below shows. Perhaps expectations had fallen a bit low ahead of the Q4 reporting season.


The earnings growth rate for these 487 companies is better than what we saw from this same group of companies in Q3 and the 4-quarer average. A big contributor to the strong Q4 earnings growth is easy comparisons for three companies – Bank of America (BAC), Verizon (VZ), and Travelers (TRV). Exclude these three companies and total earnings growth for the S&P 500 companies that have reported drops to +5.6% from the ‘headline’ +9.4%, which is about where growth has been in recent quarters.

The revenue growth rate is notably weak, but that’s primarily because of the Finance and Energy sectors.

Prudential Financial (PRU) had an unusually large top-line gain in the year-earlier quarter and is a big reason for the Finance sector’s -8.7% drop in reported revenues. Excluding these two sectors, total revenue growth for the S&P 500 improves to +3.2%, compared to growth rates of +3.4% for the same group of companies in Q3 and the 4-quarter average of +2.5%. What this means is that top-line growth is weak, but it’s not as weak as the ‘headline’ +0.7% gain would make you believe.

The Composite Growth Picture

The ‘composite’ picture for Q4, where we combine results from the 486 companies that have reported already with the 14 still to come, is for growth rate of +9.2%. This will be the highest quarterly growth pace of 2013, with easy comparisons playing a non-trivial role in propping up the growth pace. The +9.2% growth rate compares to +5.0% in Q3 and +4.0% in Q2.

Finance remains a big growth driver in Q4 – total earnings growth for the S&P 500 in Q4 drop to +6.6% once the sector is excluded. Energy continues to be a drag on aggregate growth, with total earnings for the sector expected to be down -10.6% in Q4 after declining -8.4% in Q3. Excluding the Energy sector, total Q4 earnings for the S&P 500 would be up +12.2% vs. +6.9% in Q3.

Technology earnings are expected be up +5.0% after the +5.6% gain in Q3. While Google (GOOG) andFacebook (FB) did extremely well, the sector overall has had a good earnings season as well. With Q4 results from 100% of the sector’s total market capitalization already out, total earnings for the sector are up +5.0% on +4.5% higher revenues. These growth rates aren’t materially different from what we saw from this same group of companies in Q3, but the beat ratios are notably better, indicating that expectations may have fallen a bit too low in the run up to the start of the reporting season.

Of the Tech sector companies that have reported already (65 out of 65 Tech sector companies in the S&P 500 accounting for 100% of the sector’s total market cap have reported results), 83.1% have beat earnings expectations, up from Q3’s 70.8% earnings beat ratio and the 4-quarter average of 72.3%. Positive revenue surprises have been materially widespread relative to recent quarters as well, with Q4 revenue beat ratio currently tracking 73.8% vs. 63.1% in Q3 and the 4-quarter average of 56.5%.

Lack of corporate capital spending has been an issue for the sector for some time and the consensus view is that we will see a turnaround on that front later this year. We haven’t heard anything yet that will add to our confidence in that expectation. But this optimistic view is a big contributor to the expected upturn in the Tech sector’s growth estimate later this year. Total earnings for the sector are expected to be up +10.0% this year and +11.0% in 2015, pronounced acceleration from the flat reading in 2013.

Monday-3/03

  • The most important economic report today is the manufacturing ISM index survey, which was a big disappointment last month. The expectation is for the index to improve to 52 from January’s 51.3 level.
  • Other key reports include the January Personal Income & Outlays, Construction Spending, and February motor vehicle sales.
  • Jinko Solar (JKS), Magna International (MGA) and Nu Skin Enterprises (NUS) are the only notable companies reporting on an otherwise low-volume reporting day.

Tuesday -3/04

  • Not much on the economic calendar.
  • AutoZone (AZO) and Radio Shack (RSH) will report quarterly results in the morning, while Smith & Wesson (SWHC) is the only notable company reporting after the close.
  • Zacks Earnings ESP, or Expected Surprise Prediction, our proprietary leading indicator of earnings surprises, is showing AutoZone coming out an earnings beat.
  • To get a better understanding of Zacks Earnings Surprise Predictor, please click here.

Wednesday-3/05

  • We will get the ADP jobs report in the morning, while the service sector ISM index will come out after the market’s open. The expectation is for private sector jobs of 155K in the ADP report, down from January’s 175K tally.
  • Hovnanian Enterprises (HOV), PetSmart (PETM) and Revlon (REV)
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