Q4 Earnings Season Will Be The Worst Of 2012: Earnings Set To Decline 1% Over Prior Year

One can stretch and spin the Q4 earnings reality to suit their particular sales pitch, or one can look at the facts. And the facts, as we first showed a week ago in "Q4 Earnings Season: Far Worse Than Most Suspect", is that before the start of Q4 earnings, the S&P 500 was expected to make $25.51 in earnings. Three weeks later, after half the companies had reported, the number declined to $24.03, with some $9.70 of actual reported earnings and the balance estimated. Now, a week later, the latest revision shows even more deterioration in earnings, which with 66% of companies my market cap reporting are now just $23.48, 8% lower than the estimate at the start of earnings season, with under $10 of earnings left in estimated EPS and the balance already in the books. As Goldman explains what this means for earnings on a year over year basis: "Our interim revised 4Q 2012 EPS estimate is now $23.48 implying negative 1% growth versus 4Q 2011 ($23.73)."

Another way of showing the transformation of Q4 from myth to reality: an inverse hockey stick as shown in the chart below, which also means that full year 2013 earnings will grind lower and lower as future optimism is also reacquainted with gravity.

Ironically, with Q4 initially expected to be the best quarter of 2012 (as expected - after all it was the last quarter of the year and this the most back-end loaded), it ended up being the worst, with its $23.48 EPS set to be below the $24.24 in 1Q, $25.43 in 2Q, and $24.00 in 3Q.

The earnings reality is even uglier when one excludes core, unflinching staples such as utilities, and the "magical" earnings from the financials, the bulk of which is loan-loss reserve releases, one-time charges, non-recurring, non cash impairments, and other accounting gimmicks. When looking solely at the S&P ex Fins and Utilities, Q4 will post a whopping 4% decline in earnings year over year!

But don't worry, the future is fantastic and earnings will soar, probably as a result of the payroll . At least that's what the always wrong sellside believes. This is the Q1-4 2013 earnings forecast was supposed to look a week ago when Goldman was still forecasting Y/Y growth in Q4 earnings. We now know that it will be a -1% drop.

Some comments from GS on why Q4 is merely the latest earnings disappointment.

  • Management guidance indicates downside to 2013 EPS. 73 companies with fiscal-year ends between November and January provided full-year 2013 guidance following their 4Q earnings announcements. 64% of firms have guided below consensus expectations, in-line with history (65%). The median company provided guidance 1% below consensus expectations.
  • Bottom-up consensus full-year 2013 estimates are down 1% since the start of earnings season. Consensus forecasts S&P 500 EPS of $112 in 2013 implying 15% growth versus full-year 2012. Consensus lowered Health Care and Information Technology earnings estimates by 4% and 3%, respectively, since the start of earnings season.
  • Using a mix of realized and consensus earnings, 4Q EPS is tracking 8% below the consensus estimate at the start of reporting season, $23.48 vs. $25.51.
  • Accounting and definition differences have lowered index-level results. Results comparable to consensus analyst estimates may differ from the Standard & Poor’s definition due both to accounting differences and definitions of earnings from operations. These differences are usually small, but pension charges had a significant impact in 4Q.

And we are supposed to believe that these EPS, and cashflow-strapped companies are hiring left and right?