We just barely reached the end of the third quarter earnings reporting season, but believe it or not, already we’re getting the first fourth quarter reports for the S&P 500. Granted, the unofficial start to the season isn’t until next month when Alcoa reports, so for now, we’re just getting a very small handful of reports. Since the end of the third quarter reporting season only about a week ago, analysts have meaningfully widened the decline they’re projecting for the fourth quarter.
Now projections before the unofficial start of the fourth quarter reporting season suggest a virtual bloodbath with only four of the ten sectors expected to report positive earnings growth.
Q4 earnings season already starting
ConAgra Foods posted earnings that were better than expected this morning, although sales were a little lower than expected. Falling commodity prices drove margin improvements during the company’s fourth fiscal quarter.
S&P Capital IQ senior analyst Lindsey Bell said in her beginning report for the fourth quarter earnings season that Wall Street is projecting a massive year over year decline of 5.23% for the S&P 500 Index’s fourth quarter aggregate earnings. The current estimate is $28.96 per share. The only four sectors that are expected to post positive growth during the fourth quarter are Consumer Discretionary, Financials, Healthcare and Telecommunications Services.
Here are the current bottom line estimates for the sectors:
As you can see, the Energy sector is still the biggest drag on the S&P 500, just as it has been throughout the year. Excluding the drag from Energy, the S&P 500’s earnings are projected to grow by 0.06% during the fourth quarter.
During the third quarter, only three sectors posted negative growth. This time around, the Industrials, Information Technologies and Utilities sectors have been added to the list of sectors expected to see negative growth during the fourth quarter. In the third quarter, only the Energy, Consumer Staples and Materials sectors saw negative growth.
So far already 15 companies in the S&P 500 have reported, and 11 of them have beat while four missed. This amounts to a beat rate of 73%, which is significantly ahead of the 66% historic average, although it is very early to be considering the beat rate.
Q4 earnings growth estimates have gotten progressively worse
Throughout this year, analyst estimates for the S&P 500’s earnings have gotten worse and worse, with the biggest leap in expectations occurring between Jan. 1 and Apr. 1 in most cases. As of the beginning of October, analysts were expecting an earnings decline of 0.45% for the index. They were also only expecting declines in three sectors, but now they are clearly expecting the fourth quarter reporting season to be extremely messy.
As you can see in the following charts, earnings growth estimates for 2016 have also been declining steadily, although at least for now, analysts are expecting a return to earnings growth for the S&P 500 in the next quarter:
By the time the third quarter of 2016 rolls around, Wall Street is expecting strong bottom line growth to return, although estimates have still declined since Apr. 1, 2015.
Q3 earnings weren’t as bad as expected
Now let’s put this all into perspective. When all the dust had settled, during the third quarter, the S&P 500 did post the first earnings decline since the third quarter of 2009 with a decline of 1.39%.
However, it wasn’t nearly as bad as analysts had been expecting at the beginning of October. As of Oct. 1, a decline of 4.75% was expected in the index’s total earnings for the third quarter. The severe doom and gloom view has since shifted from the third to the fourth quarter, as on Oct. 1, analysts were only forecasting a decline of 0.45% for the S&P 500’s fourth quarter bottom line,, compared to the current projection of a 5.23% decline.
It seems as the third quarter earnings season progressed and the results came in better than expected, analysts moved their heavy decline projections further out. Here’s how estimates for the third and fourth quarters developed throughout the year (Note: this chart is from Bell’s report at the end of the third quarter):
When Bell closed out her earnings coverage for the third quarter, analysts were projecting a 4.81% decline for the S&P 500’s fourth quarter bottom line, but now that decline has increased to 5.23%. So were analysts right to move their excessively bearish estimates into the fourth quarter? We won’t have any idea until we get a good percentage of the earnings reports in, but if things shape up like they did in the third quarter, investors may again be pleasantly surprised.
All charts in this article are courtesy S&P Capital IQ.