Good number crunching in the “Ahead of the Tape” column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal by Mark Gongloff.
Conclusion: It’s hard to see how U.S. companies are going to deliver the earnings growth Wall Street now projects for 2010.
Here are the numbers as Gongloff lays them out.
Right now Wall Street analysts expect the stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 to pull down earnings of $73 a share in 2010. That would be a 35% increase from 2009.
And if companies deliver, the index is now trading at 15 times projected 2010 earnings. That’s on the low side of the range that history tells is us fair value.
But the Wall Street consensus is also projecting revenue growth of just 5% to 10% in 2010.
Given how tough it’s been for most companies to grow their top line sales in 2009, that seems like a reasonable projection.
So, Gongloff asks, how do you get from 5% to 10% revenue growth to 35% earnings growth?
You assume that companies will be really, really profitable with profit margins of 8% in 2010 and 9’% in 2011. That compares, Gongloff cites Bill Hester of the Hussman Funds as noting, to a long-term average profit margin of 6%. And an all all time high for profit margins of 10% in 2007.
If profit margins in 2010 are closer to the norm and revenue grows in the 5% to 10%, then projected earnings for 2010 come down and the market is trading at 17 times 2010 earnings. That’s smack dab in the middle of the range for historic fair value.
And doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for a big rally from today’s prices without pushing the stock market into over-valued territory.
Gongloff also notes that while profit margins typically do expand after a recession–since companies are reluctant to hire in the initial stages of a recovery, they do more work with fewer workers, for example–it usually takes about two years to add two percentage points to profit margins.