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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Earnings Will Disappoint Wall Street

As you probably know, John Hussman's analysis of earnings is for a long term decline to be underway now. That should lead to the stock market indices to fall at a substantial rate over the next few years. And, that's due to the fact that Wall Street has overestimated earnings growth.

Now, in John Mauldin's Outside the Box, we find that Sheraz Mian, Director of Research, Zacks Investment Research agrees:

In absolute dollar terms, consensus expectations are for companies in the S&P 500 to earn $1.03 trillion (yes that is a trillion) in 2013 and $1.15 trillion in 2014. In terms of earnings per share, this approximates to $109.88 per "share" of the S&P 500 index in 2013 and $122.72 in 2014.

In my professional opinion, they are not realistic. I don't think these expectations will pan out, and here is why.

Earnings increase through two ways: revenue growth and/or margin expansion (margins are basically earnings as a percentage of sales). The outlook on both fronts is problematic.

Margins have peaked already and at best can be expected to stabilize around current levels. And you can't have significant revenue growth in the current growth-constrained environment.

Another avenue for growth, particularly at the individual company level, is through mergers and acquisitions. While many M&A deals don't end up creating value for the acquiring company's shareholders and don't generate growth at the aggregate level, they do produce growth at the company level. The historical track record of corporate deal making, in terms of aggregate growth and returns, is spotty at best. But management teams are ever ready for a deal, particularly when elevated equity markets provide them with an easy-to-use currency and the credit markets are willing to fund anything, as is the case at present.

The expected strong earnings growth in the second half of 2013 and next year reflect a combination of revenue growth and margin gains. Revenue growth has a very strong correlation with (nominal or non-inflation-adjusted) global GDP growth. But economic growth has been very anemic lately, with the rich world's slow-motion deleveraging process casting a dark shadow over the faster-growing emerging world.

The US economy is actually in better shape relative to the recession in Europe and Japan's nascent efforts to inflate away its problems. But that's only in relative terms — the reality is that the US economy is at best on a sub-2% growth trajectory. Even that growth pace may be at risk from unfolding fiscal austerity efforts such as the budget sequester and Fiscal Cliff-related tax hikes.

But consensus expectations are looking for a second-half 2013 GDP growth ramp-up that pushes the growth pace close to +3%, and even higher next year. With the US economy barely producing any growth in 2012 Q4, it is hard to envision the growth outlook improving to that extent. But current revenue-growth expectations reflect these optimistic assumptions.