With Q3 Earnings Season Half Done, This Is Where We Stand

With more than half of the S&P500 reporting Q3 results so far, it appears that the earnings recession may finally be ending mostly as a result of the rise in oil prices which have pushed energy earnings higher relative to expectations on a year over year basis, and especially due to surprisingly strong results in the US banking sector.

Consensus now expects 3Q earnings growth of +1% YoY (+4% ex-Energy), the first quarter of positive growth since 2Q15. While growth is positive and accelerating across sectors such as Financials and Tech, growth is still negative in Energy (for the eighth quarter) and Industrials (for the sixth quarter). Discretionary earnings have notably weakened, driven by Autos, where earnings are expected to decline YoY for the first time since 2009. Sales trends have improved in this sector, suggesting margin compression from cost pressure. We have been concerned about margins for labor-intensive Discretionary companies due to higher wages, and evidence of this has been building in company commentary, and would likely be further exacerbated by a Democratic administration.

Some details on Q3 season from BofA: with the conclusion of Week 3, 292 companies representing 70% of S&P 500 3Q earnings have reported. Estimates climbed across all eleven sectors last week, driving bottom-up EPS to $30.77 from $30.24. This is now more than 3% above analysts’ expectations at the start of earnings season. Earnings are tracking above analysts’ expectations for all sectors except Energy, with the biggest  contributors to the beat in Banks, Capital Markets, Aerospace & Defense, Software, and Autos. Meanwhile, Oil & Gas, Metals & Mining, Media, and Industrial Conglomerates have seen the biggest downward revisions to earnings since the start of the month.

Digging into the earnings announcement, a recurring theme emerges: of the 292 companies that have reported so far, there have been at least 59 mentions of the election in earnings transcripts so far, well above the 32 mentions for the full 3Q earnings season ahead of the 2008 election, and tracking above the 85 mentions during the full 3Q12 when adjusted for the number of companies that have reported. Many companies have mentioned uncertainty over policy combined with continued Brexit uncertainty impacting sentiment as well as investment. Our economics team relatedly noted there were an increased number of mentions in the Fed’s latest Beige Book of the election creating uncertainty and delaying investments.

Another recurring theme: light guidance. The three-month ratio of above-vs. below-consensus guidance is tracking at 0.82, its highest since June and above its long-term average of 0.62. At the sector level, Financials, Tech, and Health Care have seen the most positive guidance trends, while Utilities, Materials, and Discretionary have all seen the worst trends. We note that despite the improvement in guidance, we are still seeing fewer instances of guidance than typically, with just 161 instances of guidance during October, the lowest for any October since 2000 (and well below the October average of 218) following a record low number of guidance instances in September.

And while on the surface Q3 results are good, as BofA points out, the proportion of beats driven lower by weak small and medium company results. So far, 65% of companies beat on EPS, 53% on sales and 42% on both, down from a week ago. Historically, 53% have beat on EPS, 56% on sales and 35% on both. Tech, Financials, and Health Care have seen the highest proportion of EPS and sales beats, as well as the most positive guidance trends. The aggregate EPS beat improvement but drop in the proportion of beats suggests better results from larger stocks. Results for the S&P 600 (small caps) and S&P 400 (mid caps) corroborate this theme: we have seen a lower proportion of positive surprises in both size segments versus the S&P 500, with a narrow earnings beat for mid caps (1%) and a slight earnings miss for small caps.

And here is a look at the ongoing struggle for small companies which have failed to enjoy the rebound in earnings observed among their larger peers:

So far, 159 of the S&P 600 small cap companies have reported.

  • Both Earnings and Sales are coming in slightly lower than expectations at the start of earnings season, faring worse than large cap on earnings.
  • Telecom, Tech, and Financials have seen the biggest upward revisions to 3Q earnings forecasts since the start of earnings season, while Consumer has seen the biggest cut.
  • So far, 50% of companies have beaten on EPS, 40% have beaten on sales and 30% have beaten on both.
  • Energy (just one company) and Health Care have seen the most top and bottom line beats thus far.
  • Earnings growth for the quarter is coming in at +7% YoY (+8% ex-Energy) on sales growth of +3% YoY (+4% ex-Energy)—both higher than in large caps.


Two last two observations from BofA focus on the lack of improvement in sales, and the cloudly outlook:

  • Still no improvement on the sales front: Despite the 3% earnings beat, sales expectations for the S&P 500 are essentially unchanged since the start of earnings season, with analysts continuing to expect sales growth of +2% YoY (+4% ex-energy). Sales are tracking below analysts’ expectations in seven of the eleven sectors. While sales growth, like earnings growth, has improved vs. prior quarters, this has been primarily due to the reversal of the headwinds from lower oil prices and a stronger dollar. Constant-currency sales growth for the S&P ex-Fins. and Energy has been slowing for two years, with a paltry 0.5ppt pick-up expected this quarter
  • Management outlook more obscured than ever by macro. While just over half of the S&P 500 companies have reported, we’ve counted more mentions of the election than during the prior two pre-election quarters (3Q08 and 3Q12) when adjusting for the number of companies that have reported. Companies have mentioned lack of clarity around US policy combined with continued Brexit uncertainty as a drag on sentiment as well as investment. The 3-month earnings guidance ratio is actually tracking above average (0.82 vs. 0.62), but this is still on fewer instances of guidance than usual. We’ve counted 161 guidance instances in Oct., the lowest for any Oct. since 2000, following a record low number of instances in Sept.