Rosenberg On The Revenue-Less, And Now Margin-Less, Recovery

A week ago, we presented a comprehensive analysis by Moody's highlighting the key items in the cash flow statement of non-financial corporate America. Not surprisingly, we noticed that one of the biggest sources of cash over the past several years, in addition to cutting expenses to the bone and the resulting surge in unemployment, was the lack of investment in organic growth opportunities, via a plunge in Capital Expenditures, meaning that a revenue flat lining is the best most companies could hope for as most have now given up on traditional top-line growth and instead are either hording cash or investing it in an occasional M&A transaction. Now, in addition to that, courtesy of the Fed's free money policy resulting in surging input prices (see Jones Apparel), the next shoe to drop on the path to an upcoming EPS collapse for the S&P is the imminent drop in gross,  operating and net margins for these very companies which are now seeing a contraction at both the top and bottom line. Today, David Rosenberg dissects this issue further, and sees nothing good on the horizon.


And, what the NYT had to conclude about 3M’s results? That it “reduced the top end of its full-year forecast and said rising raw materials costs and other pressures were cutting into margins, sending the company's shares sharply lower.” Margin compression at a time of low single-digit nominal GDP growth does not equate to a $95 operating EPS stream for 2011.

Further on this file of compressed margin pressure, S&P 500 revenue growth is already slowing down, notwithstanding the fact that 80% of the universe is beating their beaten-down profit estimates. The cost-cutting wave certainly did go much further than anyone expected but as the legendary Herb Stein once remarked, “anything that can’t last forever, by definition, won’t.” At some point, the well will run dry on the cost-cutting front and slowing revenue growth will take over — on track for +5.5% YoY in Q3 from 6.1% in Q2 and the consensus now for Q4 is sitting at +4.9%. As an added signpost of how this has proven to have been a revenue-less recovery, the top-line growth since the profits rebound began just over a year ago is running at barely more than half the average pace recorded in the 2002-07 cycle.

For all the talk about profits recovery, sales are still 11% lower now than they were in the spring of 2008. And, if you are wondering why it is that the stock market has still done little more than range trade in 2010, it is because earnings estimates are no longer rising as they were in 2009 — they are falling. The bottom-up consensus now sees 12.9% earnings growth for 2011 from 14.2% a month ago and 20.9% back in the spring. Have a look at the Paul Lim column on page 8 of the Sunday NYT business section — Raising a Caution Flag on Corporate Revenue.

From Gluskin-Sheff (full report pdf)


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