Thursday, October 22, 2009

Earnings Watch – Start Paying Closer Attention to the Top Line

It’s hard to believe, but another earnings season is underway, and at this point about 30% of S&P 500 Index companies have already reported quarterly results. So far, the quarter is mirroring the prior several quarters in that actual earnings are down for 7 out of 10 sectors, but 9 out of 10 sectors have reported positive earnings surprises (earnings that were ahead of consensus analyst estimates). What may be different this quarter is what investors are expecting in order to keep the rally moving. For two straight quarters positive earnings surprises were enough to move an oversold and nervous market higher. But going forward, additional gains are going to require an improvement in “top line” growth for companies, meaning a pickup in core business sales and not just better earnings based on cost-cutting.

Looking at the sales numbers so far gives a far less rosy picture than earnings, particularly when it comes to expectations (see data from Bloomberg shown below). The good news is that the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index was up again today, and continues to imply improving economic growth and a pickup in sales at some point in this recovery. However, this common sense logic only works if the leading indicators function as well as they used to, given the current credit-constrained and deflationary environment (last I checked the velocity of money is not included in any of the leading indicators).

Let’s hope the leading indicators are still reliable, because after the rally we’ve experienced off the bottom, the market is no longer undervalued or oversold. In fact, it’s fair to say that on a short-term basis the market is very overbought. Momentum investors can certainly prop up markets temporarily, but they can also turn on a dime given the right catalyst. The bottom line is that we better see a pickup in sales sometime soon, otherwise a lack of organic growth may become the negative catalyst that causes a long overdue correction in the financial markets.