Amidst the worry over global growth, interest rates, and central bank stimulus, it’s easy to lose track of the earnings picture for a third quarter that’s due to close in two-and-a-half weeks. Or maybe that’s because no one really wants to focus on earnings because right now expectations are gloomy. Analysts are projecting that the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 will show another quarter of declining earnings growth from the year-earlier quarter. If that’s correct, that would make the third quarter the sixth consecutive quarter with a year-over-year drop in earnings.
Projections as put together by FactSet call for a 2% decline in earnings measured year to year. That’s a disappointment after earlier projections showed the quarter breaking the negative string. Back on June 30 Wall Street analysts were looking for 0.4% year-over-year earnings growth. Not much, but at least the projection was on the right side of zero.
Where are analysts projecting the biggest damage? Three sectors are expected to show year-over-year drops in earnings with the biggest in energy and industrials. Analysts are now looking for energy sector earnings to fall by 65.9% from the third quarter of 2015 (that’s a big retreat from the 52.6% drop projected for the sector in the quarter back on June 30.) Earnings for industrial companies in the S&P 500 are projected to drop by 7.7%.
Seven sectors are projected to show growth but none are growing fast enough to offset the drop in earnings by the big declining sectors–and in most cases the most recent projections of earnings growth are lower than then were back at the end of June. Earnings are now projected to grow by 5.7% for utilities, 4.2% for health care, and 4.2% for consumer discretionary stocks. After these big winners, the most interesting sector is information technology where earnings growth is projected at 1.1%. That’s not overly impressive until you note that information technology is the only sector where analysts have raised their projections for earnings growth since June 30. Back then analysts were looking for 0.2% earnings growth in the third quarter for the sector. The biggest contributors to that improvement in expectations are Facebook (FB) and Amazon (AMZN.)
The grim picture for third quarter earnings growth helps explain part of current market jitters. Without earnings growth, the advance in stock prices in 2016 looks over-extended. Based on current projections the 12-month forward price to earnings ratio for the S&P 500 is 17. That’s ahead of the five-year average foreword price-to-earnings ratio of 14.8 and the 10-year average of 14.3. Not exactly the stuff that crashes are built of but enough to argue for some caution, especially if low interest rates, the great support of current valuations, look like they will become a little less low in the remainder of 2016.
On the upside, analysts are looking for the third quarter to break the string of quarters with declining year-over-year earnings The current projection of 2.6% sales growth for the third quarter would break a string of negative quarters that stretches back to the fourth quarter of 2014.