Listening to the incessant chatter of confirmation bias from CNBC, you could be forgiven for thinking that earnings are 'not that bad'. Headline-makers like AMZN, GOOG, and AAPL scare for a few moments but we are reassured back to numb BTFD-land by some disingenuous analyst (or worse a PM) who says he is buying with both hands and feet. The misleadingly top-down positive impression of looking at a 'beats-to-total ratio', suffers from one rather annoying bias (that often gets forgotten): analysts constantly revising their expectations throughout the reporting period, and hence rarely deviates from the current level of 71%. But, as Citi notes, if one examines results relative to analyst expectations prior to the reporting season, it's clear just how disappointing Q3 has been - especially given the sell-side mark-downs already factored-in.
If one uses unrevised expectations - which simply anchor lower and make every succeeding number look relatively better and better as earnings season progresses in one direction or another - then the S&P 500's earning surprises are even worse than Q2 - making the sixth quarter in a row of 'missed' pre-expectations...
Third quarter earnings have surprised to the downside even more than in the second quarter.
What's more, earnings have been particularly disappointing given that sell-side expectations already underwent significant downward revisions months ago. Indeed, the bottom-up estimate for S&P500 third quarter earnings per share dropped quite precipitously from above 28 down to 26.5 in July as management teams lowered their own guidance. Intriguingly, for as downbeat as third quarter results have been, we've yet to see the sell-side revise down estimates for next quarter or 2013 (see chart).
That could be an ominous sign given that the commentary on many a third quarter earnings call has been so cautious, particularly with respect to the fiscal cliff. Qualitatively speaking, we worry that with almost all companies missing top line revenue targets (most notably OC, AVT, NSC, LLY), fourth quarter earnings may end up disappointing sell-side analyst even more than Q3. Moreover, the weakness we’ve seen in the basics/cyclicals as a result of slower growth in China and Europe (DD, DOW, FCX) and the headwind that sequestration looks like it will pose to the defense industry (NOC, GD, LMT) create potentially formidable challenges for those sectors in particular.