As of April 7 Wall Street analysts are expecting year over year earnings growth of 9.2% for the stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 for the first quarter of 2017, according to Yardeni Research. FactSet’s estimates are just slightly lower at 8.9% year over year growth.
FactSet points out that that would be the highest rate of growth for S&P 500 earnings since the 8.9% year over year growth rate for the fourth quarter of 8.9%.
And earnings could be even better than that. FactSet notes that by the end of the quarter analyst estimates have lagged the actual results when they’re announced in the weeks that follow by about 2.9 percentage points. That would result in an actual year over year earnings growth rate of 11.8% for the quarter. That would be the highest quarterly growth rate since the 16.7% in the third quarter of 2011.
Please note that the year over year growth rate looks so strong for the first quarter of 2017 because earnings fell in the first quarter of 2016 to the tune of a negative 5.7%. In the second quarter earnings fell 1.6%.
Looking at the actual projected earnings per share for the S&P 500 stoke, the estimate of $29.44 for the first quarter would actually be below the $31.28 in earnings recorded in the fourth quarter of 2016.
The forward price to earnings ratio for the S&P 500–if first quarter earnings come in as projected–is 17.5%. That’s the highest forward PE since June 2004. And it’s way above the historical average of 15.2 for the last five years and 14.4 for the last 10 years. It is, however, only slightly above the 20-year average of 17.2.
As you think about whether the market is expensive or not, make sure you look at not just projected earnings growth for this quarter of 9.1% (or 8.9%) but at the strong projected growth for the remainder of 2017. Yardeni Research calculates year over year earnings growth of 8.2% in the second quarter (the weakest of quarter of 2017) and then 9.0% year over year growth in the third quarter and a whopping 13.3% growth rate in the fourth quarter.
If–the most important word in investing–these estimates of earnings growth turn out to be correct, I’d call the U.S. stock market fairly valued at current prices. These projected earnings fundamentals do support current prices.To reach a conclusion that U.S. stocks are radically overvalued on the earnings fundamentals, I think you have to posit some kind of contraction in the U.S. economy. At least a recession, I’d say. Or a drop in oil prices. Or a monkey wrench getting thrown in the works in the banking sector.
I flag those possibilities (or causes of worry, you prefer) because so much of the earnings growth forecast for 2017 depends on energy, banking, and economically sensitive commodities companies. For the first quarter, Wall Street is expecting earnings in the energy sector to swing from a loss of $1.5 billion in the first quarter of 2016 to positive earnings of $7.7 billion in the first quarter of 2017. That’s a 9.2 billion swing. If you take energy out of the S&P earnings numbers as a whole, earnings growth in the first quarter of 2017 drops to 5.1% from the currently forecast 8.9%, according to FactSet. The financial sector shows the highest year to year growth in earnings of the 11 S&P sectors at 14.3%. The materials sector, always very sensitive to shifts in the global economy, is forecast to grow by 13.4% in the first quarter with the Metals & Mining sub sector forecast to show an 806% increase in earnings.
If any of those sectors falter, then the forecasts for 2017 earnings aren’t worth very much to investors. If those sectors come through, then the market is fairly valued on the fundamentals.
Of course, earnings fundamentals aren’t the only factor that determines stock prices. But this is the picture on the earnings fundamentals front as we head into the earnings season that begins on Thursday (with reports from Citigroup (C), JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Wells Fargo (WFC)) and that goes into high gear next week. (U.S. stock markets are closed on Friday.)