Are Corporate Earnings and P/E Ratios a Leading Stock Market Indicator?

As usual, Alcoa kicked off the quarterly earnings ritual. Corporate profits will be on display for weeks to come, but are earnings a leading or lagging indicator? Here’s the long-term effect of earnings on stocks and the one pattern worth watching right now.

‘Tis the season to get jolly about earnings. The quarterly earnings ritual pays a visit every quarter and captures the interest of Wall Street and Main Street alike.

How much do corporate earnings affect stocks? Are earnings a leading stock market indicator?

A chart says more than a thousand words and the one below plots the S&P 500 against US corporate profits measured in nominal dollars and corporate net profits as a percentage of GDP.

Fundamental analysts use earnings per share (EPS) and P/E ratios to figure out where a stock should be trading. By extension the same process is applied to broader indexes, like the S&P 500 or Dow Jones.

As evidenced by the chart, there has been an obvious correlation between profits and stock prices (at least since the late 1990s), but its not as snug as some analysts make it seem.

Corporate profits rolled over several quarters before the stock market peaked in 2000 and 2007. In hindsight, one might extrapolate that corporate profits are a leading indicator.

However, the problem is that profits aren’t known until well after the fact. Earnings are released after the fact and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports quarterly profits with a 3-month time lag.

In addition, who knows if a one-quarter decline is just a one-quarter chink in the chain leading to higher prices or the beginning of the next recession?

If you’re inclined to wait for a second quarter, you’re already talking about a 9-month time lag. The long-term earnings picture provides little direction for short-term investment decisions.

Here’s a short-term first quarter earnings pattern that’s worth watching. Solid earnings, even record earnings, have been followed by weak stock performance in April/May.

Earnings Euphoria: Precursor to Bearish Mean Reversion?

Corporate America has never before seen higher profits than now. Are healthy profits a reflection of a healthy economy or have earnings reached a point of unsustainability?

In good old times past it used to be that when complacency reigns on Wall Street, investors get wet. It’s different in a QE world; When complacency reigns, investors get wet eventually. Are investors complacent?

Bloomberg reports: “With 72% of earnings exceeding analysts’ estimates, it may be difficult for U.S. stocks not to reach a record in 2013. The S&P 500 is poised to recover fully from the financial crisis that began almost six years ago.”

According to 11,000 analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg, profits of S&P 500 companies are expected to exceed $1 trillion this year, 31% more than when the gauge peaked. Bloomberg calls this the “biggest expansion in profits since the technology bubble of the 1990s.”

This is a bold statement. There was not only the earnings explosion of the late 1990s, there was also the financial leverage earnings explosion of the mid 2000s. In 2007, earnings of the financial sector (corresponding ETF: Financial Select Sector SPDR – XLF) accounted for over 40% of all U.S. profits.

It’s hard to believe that S&P 500 earnings today are 77.6% higher than at the 2000 peak and 10.3% higher compared to the prior 2007 all-time high.

A voice of reason often tends to get over looked in an unreasonable world, but the chart below reminds us of unpopular past realities. Mean reversion took many by surprise and earnings peaks turned into stock market peaks.

What do earnings tell us about stocks? Corporate earnings aren’t a short-term timing tool and shouldn’t be used as such, but record earnings sow the seeds for subsequent declines.

The S&P is currently trading just above a major long-term support/resistance level. As long is it remains above support, stocks may grind higher, but a trip below may quickly turn into a fast and furious decline.

The Profit Radar Report highlights the support and risk management levels needed to avoid a surprise move.

Why Financial Sector Earnings Are a Deceptive Farce

Because of a slew of earnings reports, this has been called “the week of truth” for the financial sector. However, a deeper look at the sector shows that big bank earnings reports are at best symbolic. One could even say that the whole ritual is utterly deceptive.

Earnings season is in full swing and most financial heavy weights are due to report this week.

Yahoo!Finance writes that: “It’s a make or break week for the financial sector with five of six of the nation’s largest banks (JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley) scheduled to report fourth-quarter earnings results” this week.

Earnings are directly related to stock market valuations, but big bank earnings releases are nothing more than a ritualistic farce. Why?

There’s no simple answer, but the next few minutes will be well worth your time. Warning! Knowledge about banks’ (corresponding ETF: SPDR S&P Bank ETF – KBE) accounting standards will result in loss of faith in the financial sector’s worth.

From Mark-to-Market to Mark-to-Make-Believe

There was a time when banks loved the Mark-to-Market accounting model, because it allowed them to showcase truly miraculous real time profits. By 2006/07 the financial sector accounted for over 40% of S&P 500 earnings.

Things changed in 2007/08. Mark-to market was unpopular with banks because it would have shown enormous real time losses. Bankers preferred to hide their balance sheets, along with the Federal Reserve and Congress too.

Bankers lobbied the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) to change the fair market accounting rule – rule 157 – but the FASB resisted. Changing fair market or Mark-to-Market was a free pass that practically required no write-downs ever.

However, via the Emergency Economy Stabilization Act of 2008, Congress gave the SEC the authority to suspend Mark-to Market accounting. FASB rule 157 was suspended on April 2, 2009.

FASB 157 – What Does it Mean?

Since April 2, 2009, banks are basically free to value their toxic assets as they please. This example illustrates how the financial engineering formula works in real life.

Bank ABC holds mortgage-backed assets originally valued at $1,000. After running some proprietary and non-verifiable models the bank determines it will eventually sell the asset for $950. The loss, termed credit loss, is only $50.

However, because of MBS bad rep, the banks portfolio is currently worth only $500. The actual current value ($500) minus the credit loss ($50) is called noncredit loss ($450).

The $450 noncredit loss is recorded on the balance sheet under “comprehensive income,” but is not run through the income statement. Those losses don’t affect earnings, and are excluded from banks’ regulatory capital calculation.

Extreme Financials

The chart below (courtesy of Yardeni Research) illustrates the effect of financials. The worst recession since the Great Depression caused five quarters of extreme earnings contraction followed by eight quarters of extreme earnings growth (yearly growth rates were capped at +100% and -100% due to extreme values).

Was the miraculous earnings recovery due to a fundamentally strengthening financial sector (corresponding ETF: Select Sector Financial SPDR – XLF) or accounting tricks?

The S&P 500 is Overvalued Based on P/E Ratio

Do valuations matter in today’s market? Just as you look at a Blue Book before buying a car, you should look at valuations before buying a stock. Even though it doesn’t mean stocks are ready to decline right now, P/E ratios suggest stocks are priced for long-term pain.

Are stocks overvalued? That’s a good question, but a better question is whether stocks are priced for long-term gains?

An individual stock – or the entire stock market – can be overvalued and still increase in value. A drunk driver may still be able to operate a vehicle, but the odds of a drunk driver or overvalued market to crash is much higher.

Buying an undervalued stock (or staying out of an overvalued market) on the other hand, places the odds in favor of the investor.

When dealing with probabilities – which is what investing is all about – having the odds in your favor is the best you can do.

Having that in mind, we ask again: Are stocks set to delivery long-term gain or pain?

Before we get to the valuation analysis, keep in mind that valuations are a long-term guide. We don’t use long-term indicators for short-term trades. A number of shorter-term indicators point to still higher prices ahead.

Pain or Gain?

Today we’ll look at valuations based on P/E ratios.

The current P/E ratio (based on Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted P/E ratio) is 21. The average P/E ratio going back to the year 1900 is 16.9. In other words, the P/E ratio is 26.9% above its historic average.

A reversion to the mean would imply a 26.9% drop in stock prices or a dramatic increase in earnings.

Is there a correlation between P/E ratios and the S&P 500? The chart below plots P/E ratios against the S&P 500. The vertical red and green lines highlight the correlation between P/E ratios and market tops/bottoms for the S&P 500.

Current P/E ratios are not at extremes that have historically marked major tops or bottoms, but P/E ratios do at best suggest sluggish growth going forward.

The visually illustrated study below shows the correlation between P/E ratios and their respective forward return.  The study covered the period from 1871 – 2010 and is based on the S&P 500 (S&P predecessors prior to 1957). P/E ratios are based on rolling average ten-year earnings/yields.

P/E ratios and the corresponding ten-year forward returns, were grouped into five quintiles in 20% intervals. As the chart shows, the cheapest quintile had the highest ten-year forward return while the most expensive quintile had the lowest return.

The projected 10-year forward real return for the S&P 500 (and SPY ETF) with a P/E ratio of 21 stocks is around 4.5%.

Keep in mind that the 1871 – 2010 span hosted multi-decade bull markets where P/E ratios remained in overvalued territory for extended periods of time. During a bear market, the forward return is likely to be much lower than the study suggests.

There are other factors that influence earnings, P/E ratios, and ultimately stocks’ performance. Those factors will be the subject of an upcoming article.

Simon Maierhofer shares his market analysis and points out high probability, low risk buy/sell recommendations via the Profit Radar Report. Click here for a free trial to Simon’s Profit Radar Report.

Disappointing Earnings May Be An Opportunity for ETF Investors, But …

The earnings season is in full swing. Most heavy hitters are slated to report earnings this week or next. Rather than overanalyzing the effect of one or two companies, this article looks at the opportunity and risk presented by the long-term earnings picture.

Even before this year’s earnings ritual started, a number of companies spoiled the third quarter earnings season. Intel, Caterpillar, FedEx and many others warned that estimates were too high.

Bloomberg reported that earnings pessimism among U.S. chief execs is the highest since the 2008 meltdown and the Wall Street Journal warns of an “earnings pothole.”

The S&P 500 has rallied as much as 37% since the October 2011 low and the stock rally has become extended. Could a bad earnings season push stocks off the edge?

De-focus On Earnings

Earnings are just one of many forces that drive stocks, in fact I consider them secondary and to some extent a contrarian indicator. Record high Q1 2010, Q1 2011, and Q1 2012 earnings were followed by dismal short-term stock performance so disappointing Q3 2012 earnings don’t automatically translate into falling stock prices.

Seasonality is favorable for most of the remaining year and key technical support for the S&P 500, Dow Jones and even the Nasdaq-100 is holding up. Let’s take a closer look at the S&P 500’s technical picture.

Since June the S&P has been climbing higher within the black parallel trend channel. The S&P’s rally stopped at 1,474.51 on September 14, which was exactly when the upper parallel channel line converged with a decade old resistance line.

Ironically that was just one day after Bernanke promised unlimited QE3. They say don’t fight the Fed, but in this instance the Fed lost to technical resistance. The decline from the September 14 high helped digest overly optimistic sentiment and put the trading odds in favor of going long.

The October 7, Profit Radar Report cautioned of lower prices, but viewed any decline as an opportunity to go long: “A digestive period that draws the S&P to 1,450 and perhaps towards 1,420 seems likely. The highest probability trade is a buy signal triggered by a move below the lower black channel line (around 1,420), followed by a move back above.”

Using trend lines to identify buying or selling opportunities worked like a charm in 2010 and 2011 (trend line breaks were a major contributor to short recommendations in April 2010 and May 2011), but starting in 2012 the S&P delivered a number a fake trend line breaks.

That’s why the above recommendation was to wait for a break below trend line support followed by a move back above before buying. The strategy worked. From here we simply elevate the stop-loss to guarantee a winning trade. We will go short only if the next important support is broken.

Long-term Earnings Message

Even as the economy continues to deteriorate, corporate earnings have slowly crept to new all-time highs. That’s right, all-time record highs.

The chart below plots operating earnings for S&P 500 companies (as reported by Standard & Poor’s) against the S&P 500 Index. Corporate earnings are the epitome of a mean reverting indicator and as predictable as a boomerang.

Every time corporate earnings get too high they reverse and the boomerang hits stocks. Nobody knows how high is too high. Right now, too many are expecting the boomerang to hit so it may take a bit longer, but we’re getting there.

Summary

Over the short-term (possibly into Q1 or Q2 2013) stocks may continue to rally (despite disappointing Q3 2012 earnings), but the long-term implications of record high earnings are deeply bearish for stocks.

The short-term opportunity for investors is to buy the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) on pullbacks (as long as they remain above key support). I don’t have a specific up side price target, but we’ll take profits when we see bearish technical divergences.

Concurrently we’ll be watching for a market top. Unfortunately, market tops aren’t a one-time event, it’s a process. Like knocking over a Coke machine, you have to rock it back and forth a few times before it falls over.

We’ll be looking at ETFs like the Short S&P 500 ProShares (SH) and UltraShort S&P 500 ProShares (SDS) once we see bearish divergences confirmed by sentiment and seasonality.

The Profit Radar Report will identify low-risk and high probability buying opportunities when they present themselves.

Big Banks Pity Their Near-Record Profits – Is This Bullish for the Financial Sector?

It’s tough being a banker today. The Federal Reserve wants to buy their bonds for top dollars, profits are near all-time highs, and yet bankers just aren’t happy. Here’s a closer look at the numbers and technicals.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the richest of them all,” the six big banks ask. The mirror replies: “You are the richest of them all, almost as rich as you were in 2006.” Disappointed about not being the richest ever, the banks walk away to drown their sorrow in a pity party.

The six largest banks reported a combined annual (June 2011 – June 2012) profit of $63 billion. How does this compare to the banks’ all-time record earnings? In 2005 banks earned $68 billion, in 2006 they earned $83 billion.

Banks are depressed because the new regulatory regime crimps their style and proven methods to make money. It requires banks to maintain bigger capital cushions. This limits their appetite for insane leverage and makes it harder to earn an “adequate” return on equity.

Boy, and those low interest rates really make it hard to make money too, they say. Never mind that the Fed pushed down interest rates just to keep the banks alive.

Some of the $63 billion profits (exactly how much nobody knows) aren’t real profits. They are accounting gains, profits engineered by clever accountants. That would explain why the six largest banks announced at least 40,000 job cuts from June 2011 – June 2012.

Perhaps this will give the banks – which are JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley – reason to cheer. According to Bloomberg estimates they are expected to earn in excess of $75 billion in 2013.

Will Financials Rally Further?

The August 5, Profit Radar Report took a closer look at financial sector – the Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLF) in particular – and featured the following research:

“Financials are currently under loved (who can blame investors). Of the $900 million invested in Rydex sector funds, only $18 million (2%) are allocated to financials.

With such negative sentiment, a technical breakout (close above 14.90) could cause a quick spike in prices. Next trend line resistance, and possible target, if 14.90 is overcome, is 15.63.”

As the chart below shows, this technical break out above resistance (dotted red lines) occurred on August 6th. The initial target at 15.63 (outlined by the solid red line) was met and exceeded quickly.

This red line, previously resistance, has now become support. There was no price/RSI divergence at the September 14 high, which suggests at least another run to new highs … another reason to make the bankers happy.

The analysis for the SPDR S&P Bank ETF (KBE) looks nearly identical.

The only way investors can share in the bankers’ (undeserved) joy is to profit from opportunities like this. The mission of the Profit Radar Report is to identify high probability and low-risk buy/sell signals for the S&P 500 and many other asset classes.