The Bottom Line

12/09/2014 at 4:58 pm

One of the key themes this blog identified on the eve of 2014 was earnings growth. Equity valuations in the major markets had reached territory that needed to see a higher denominator in the p/e ratio or risk looking overvalued.

Since then we have seen a quarterly contraction in the US, patchy outcomes for GDP across the Eurozone and tax-related volatility in the Japanese economy. There has thus been reason to suspect that this growth would disappoint. And that is before considering any confidence impact from events in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere.

So the Q2 US earnings season which opened in early July was arguably more important than most. When it opened, consensus expectations as followed by Bloomberg were for a 4.5% increase on the prior year, barely higher than the 4.2% increase in nominal GDP over the same period.

In early August, however, just as the S&P 500 had fallen back towards 1900, things were looking rather better. By this time the first 200 companies had reported their results. The increase in EPS was averaging 12%. The analyst consensus began to catch up, and the final outcome for Q2 was then expected to reach 8.2%.

Now the season is essentially over with 499 companies having reported. Index earnings for the S&P rose by 10.3% over the prior year. In price terms the 500 is up by more than 18% over the last 12 months, but supported by that bottom line growth the exuberance does not appear irrational – especially if most of the momentum can be maintained, as is expected.

There was an interesting story out this morning on European earnings growth too. With the sovereign debt crisis and the double dip recession, the outcomes for reported EPS on the Stoxx 50 have been dire. But for the first time since April 2012, there are now more positive than negative earnings revisions coming from analysts covering European stocks. In the words of one such:

“There are signs that the pressure on European companies … is beginning to abate. We’re beginning to see small upgrades in earnings estimates overall for the first time in absolutely ages.”

There is a connection here to recent euro weakness, and a further connection to the open mouth operations of the ECB. There is also a lot of ground to make up: simply stripping out reported losses reduces the historic p/e on the Stoxx to 16.1x from over 23x. For the S&P 500 this makes almost no difference – 18x drifts lower to 17.8x.

These markets are not a steal any more – in isolation, certainly. (Relative to bond markets they still look very cheap, but that says just as much about poor value in rates.) It has been a long wait for many to see real, underlying growth actually return to growth assets. What it needs to do now is continue.



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