In his weekly chart packet, Goldman's high frequency strategist, David Kostin, who now changes his year end S&P targets almost as frequently as the firm's economic team changes its GDP forecast, once again gets decidedly fatalistic (very much like Citigroup did yesterday, and Morgan Stanley last week), and is now openly contemplating downside cases to his EPS forecast. And with 2012 EPS numbers thrown around like $91 based on what is certainly an upcoming (but for now still hypothetical) margin contraction, $82 based on a 2% drop (almost guaranteed) in GDP Y/Y, and $75 based on historical earnings plunges in a recession, it may be time to listen up, because apply a traditional contractionary multiple of about 9-10x, and you have yourself a tidy little range of 700 - 910 on the S&P in about a year, absent yet another round of fiscal and/or monetary stimulus.
Kostin on the sensitivity between GDP and EPS:
Every 50 bp shift in 2012 GDP growth rate translates into about $2 per share in 2012 EPS. For example, if the US economy stalls and registers no growth in 2012, then our EPS forecast would equal $94, about $8 below our current estimate and 2% below 2011. If US GDP contracts by 2% on a year/year basis then 2012 EPS would fall to $82 reflecting a 14% decline from 2011.
Many investors are surprised that the EPS sensitivity to GDP growth is not more sizeable. One explanation is that a meaningful portion of aggregate earnings is only modestly linked to GDP growth. Utilities, Telecom Services, Consumer Staples and Health Care will account for nearly 30% of 2012 EPS. We recognize that federal and state government austerity next year will likely have a negative impact on earnings for certain sub-sectors of Health Care. Information Technology, Energy, and Materials generate a large portion of their sales outside the US, in some cases more than 50%, and pricing for commodities reflects global supply and demand. These sectors account for 36% of our 2012 S&P 500 EPS.
For future gloating's sake, where is where Wall Street currently sees 2012 GDP:
One thing we can guarantee: the consensus will not be reality 16 months from now.
How about the predictive ability of margin contraction?
Every 50 bp swing in margins equates to $5 per share in S&P 500 EPS (assuming sales growth and Financials and Utilities EPS estimates are unchanged). If margins fall by 140 bp from current 8.9% then S&P 500 EPS would fall to $91, $11 or 11% below our existing 2012 EPS forecast of $102.
Note the assumptions which will never be realized if the bottom falls out.
But the bigggest bear argument is not based on predicting the future (never Goldman's strong suit, unless the firm is actually defining it courtesy of its DC based tentacles), but based on the past:
Six profit cycles since 1974 show peak-to-trough declines in S&P 500 EPS averaged 22%. Most downturns ranged from 10% to 22% although the 2009 drop hit 58% led by a 157% collapse in Financials EPS. Sector level average peak-to-trough declines ranged from 8% growth (Consumer Staples) to 56% decline (Financials). If next year S&P 500 experiences a profit cycle decline similar in magnitude to prior contractions then earnings would fall by 22% to roughly $75 in 2012. Prior downturns typically occurred over 18 months.
End result: $75 EPS x 10 Multiple = 750 for the S&P.
That distant runging noise is every Wall Street CEO calling Ben Bernanke at the same time.