Sunday, February 21, 2021

S&P 500 Earnings: V-Shaped Recovery

On the health front of the world war against the virus (WWV), the third wave of the pandemic, which started around Halloween, has been the worst by far (Fig. 1). However, it crested on January 15, when the 10-day moving average of hospitalizations peaked at 232,583. This series was down 56% to 101,407 on February 15. That’s encouraging. Hopefully, there won’t be another wave related to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations is picking up, which should change Covid-19 from a plague to a pest.

Notwithstanding the severity of the third wave of the pandemic during the fourth quarter of last year and early this year, a great deal of progress has been made on the economic front of WWV. The US continues to trace out a V-shaped recovery. The same can be said about the global economy. That’s showing up in the V-shaped recovery in S&P 500 earnings. So the V-shaped rebound in the S&P 500 stock price index has been justified by the rebound in earnings. The index hasn’t been disconnected from the economy as widely believed.

Of course, the remarkable progress made on the financial front of WWV in both the stock and credit markets has been largely driven by the unprecedented stimulus provided by fiscal and monetary policies around the world. Credit-quality yield spreads have narrowed, and corporate and municipal bond yields have dropped to pre-pandemic readings. The financial system and global economy are awash in liquidity, resulting in elevated valuation multiples.

Let’s review the V-shaped recovery in S&P 500 revenues, earnings, and profit margins:

(1) Q4 earnings season. Let’s start with the Q4 reporting season. So far, 369 of the S&P 500 companies have reported. During the week of February 11, S&P 500 earnings for the quarter came in at $42.26 per share using the blend of actual and estimated earnings (Fig. 2). That’s up 14.6% from the estimate during the week of December 31, just prior to the latest season. Remarkably, the latest blended earnings number for Q4 is up 0.6% y/y! That follows the following declines during the previous three quarters: Q1 (-15.4%), Q2 (-32.3), and Q3 (-8.2) (Fig. 3).

That certainly was a V-shaped recovery in the quarterly earnings-per-share numbers last year, although 2020’s total was down 14% to $140 per share from $163 in 2019. We are predicting $175 for this year, which would be a 25% rebound from last year’s total.

(2) Forward revenues and earnings. Also showing V-shaped recovery formations are S&P 500’s forward revenues and forward earnings, i.e., the time-weighted average of consensus estimates for this year and next year (Fig. 4). Both certainly stand out as V-shaped compared to their U-shaped recoveries during the Great Financial Crisis.[1]

Forward revenues per share is a great weekly coincident indicator of actual S&P 500 revenues per share (Fig. 5). During the week of February 4, the former was only 0.5% below its record high during the week of March 5.

Forward earnings per share is a great weekly year-ahead leading indicator of actual S&P 500 operating earnings on a four-quarter trailing basis (Fig. 6 and Fig. 7). Admittedly, it doesn’t see recessions coming, but it works very well during economic recoveries and expansions. It was $176.78 during the week of February 11, only 1.2% below its record high during the week of January 30, 2020. That latest number is about the same as our forecast for the year.

(3) Profit margin. Apparently, companies scrambled to cut their costs when the pandemic hit only to find that their sales recovered sooner than expected. That explains why the S&P 500 forward profit margin plunged from 12.0% at the start of 2020 to 10.3% during the week of May 28 and rebounded back to 11.9% during the week of February 4 (Fig. 8). Here are the latest analysts’ consensus profit margin estimates for 2020 (10.2%), 2021 (11.7%), and 2022 (12.7%) (Fig. 9).

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Help Wanted

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Larry Summers trashed President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan as too stimulative and too inflationary. He also strongly implied that the plan included overly generous unemployment benefits that would discourage the unemployed from taking jobs. In fact, there is mounting evidence that the unemployment benefits provided by the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act have been doing the same.

There actually seem to be lots of job openings, but fewer people willing to take them. That would explain why wages have been rising at a faster pace in recent months. At the start of the pandemic, many low-wage workers lost their jobs, while most high-wage workers could work from home. That explained the jump in average hourly earnings during March and April, for sure. But now, wages may be getting a boost from a shortage of workers. Of course, contributing to the problem may be a mismatch between the skills required for the available jobs and the skills of available workers.

This is obviously a controversial subject. Undoubtedly, there are many people who have lost their jobs and can’t find new ones. It makes sense to target government stimulus support to them until the pandemic is over. Now let’s see what the data have to say on this subject:

(1) Wages and salaries. Despite January’s disappointing payrolls report, our Earned Income Proxy (EIP) for wages and salaries in the private sector rose 1.1% m/m and 0.6% y/y, its first positive reading since last March. It had bottomed at -8.9% y/y last April (Fig. 1). Private-sector wages and salaries in personal income already rose to a record high during December and probably did so again in January according to our EIP!

How can this be? Payroll employment in January was still down 9.6 million y/y, with 10.1 million people still unemployed, i.e., 4.3 million more than at the start of 2020. And the labor force was down 4.3 million from a year ago. Yet private wages and salaries in personal income rose 3.2% y/y in December (Fig. 2).

(2) Hourly wages. The measures of hourly wages all jumped during March and April as low-wage workers bore the brunt of the job losses from the lockdowns (Fig. 3). That might still explain the solid y/y percent increases in average hourly earnings for all workers (5.4% through January), average hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers (also 5.4% through January), and hourly compensation in nonfarm business (7.8% through Q4).

However, there is mounting evidence that wages may be starting to get a boost from a shortage of workers willing to take jobs, perhaps because they can make more with government unemployment benefits, as Summers suggested.

(3) Payroll tax receipts. Allow me to keep you in suspense while I also observe that despite the terrible numbers of unemployed workers and labor market dropouts, total payroll taxes rose to a record high of $1.48 trillion (saar) in personal income, more than reversing its Covid-related decline and exceeding the previous record high during October 2008 by 48%! The 12-month sum of just federal payroll tax receipts rose to a record $1.34 trillion during December, up 6.2% y/y (Fig. 4). Both had declined sharply during the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and remained weak during the subsequent recovery.

How can this be? Perhaps many of the job losses have occurred for low-wage workers who were paid off the books in cash. In addition, unemployment income is taxable, and many beneficiaries may have elected to have the payroll taxes withheld from their benefit checks.

(4) Income tax receipts. Individual income tax receipts in personal income have rebounded along with personal income and were down only 2.4% during December from last February’s record high (Fig. 5). The 12-month sum of federal income tax receipts also rebounded but was still down 10.9% during December compared to the record high last March.

(5) Small businesses. Yesterday, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) released its January survey of small business owners. Overall, it was a downbeat report, with the Small Business Optimism Index taking a dive during January (Fig. 6). Many of the small business owners in the NFIB survey reported being depressed about poor sales and higher taxes (Fig. 7).

Yet remarkably, when asked about their staffing, 33.0% of respondents said they have job openings (Fig. 8). The net percent of small businesses hiring over the next three months was 17.0% last month. The percent with few or no qualified applicants for job openings was 46.0%. All these readings are within shouting distance of their pre-pandemic peaks. They rebounded dramatically following the lockdowns. Truly amazing!

(6) Indeed. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported, “The number of help-wanted ads returned to pre-pandemic levels in January, particularly among industries that have weathered the pandemic relatively well, a sign that hiring could pick up from its sluggish pace at the start of the year. Available jobs on job-search site Indeed were up 0.7% at the end of January from Feb. 1, 2020, according to the company’s measure of job posting trends. The number of postings to the site has grown since hitting a low in May, though the pace of new openings has slowed in recent months, Indeed said.”

(7) JOLTS. I saved the best for last. Yesterday’s JOLTS report for December provided plenty of jolts on developments in the labor market. JOLTS is the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey compiled monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For starters, total job openings rebounded from last year’s low of 5.0 million during April to 6.6 million during December (Fig. 9). It’s up 1.4% y/y. That represents a V-shaped recovery, especially compared to the experience during and after the GFC.

The number of unemployed workers as a ratio of job openings fell to a record low of 0.81 during October 2019 (Fig. 10). It jumped to peak last year at 4.63 during April. It was back down to 1.62 during December. The conclusion is that there are more jobs available and fewer unemployed workers competing for them in recent months.

(8) Causalities. By pointing out the above, I don’t mean to diminish the pain and suffering experienced by lots of people on the health, financial, and economic fronts of the world war against the virus. Our labor market has too many unemployed people and too many people who have been forced out of the labor force by the pandemic’s lockdowns of schools and businesses.

On a y/y basis through January, the labor force is down 4.3 million, with women accounting for 58% of the drop. Many no doubt had to quit jobs to take care of children whose schools were operating online only. Also, many individuals in the high-risk age group may have decided to retire early, especially those in face-to-face jobs like teaching.

We can see that in the JOLTS report, where the number of quits jumped from last year’s low of 1.9 million in April to 3.3 million in December (Fig. 11). The quit rate is especially high in the leisure & hospitality industry (Fig. 12). Usually quits rise during good times as people find better jobs. This time, many of the quitters may be dropping out of the labor force.

(9) Bottom line. The data do support Summers' notion that the government’s unemployment benefits were helpful at first but now may be contributing to a shortage of workers and may continue to do so under the Biden plan.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Inflation Is Up for Discussion

Inflation I: Prices Paid vs Prices Received

In recent Zoom calls with accounts, I am spending more time discussing the outlook for inflation. For investors, this may very well be among the most important, if not the most important, issue to get right in 2021 and beyond. If inflation looks likely to remain subdued, then we can “keep walking because there is nothing to see here, folks.” If inflation looks likely to make a modest comeback, then overweighting inflation hedges in portfolios would make sense. In recent months, there has certainly been some comeback-like action in the prices of assets that might benefit from higher inflation. If inflation were to make a big comeback, bond yields would soar. That could cause a credit crunch, a recession, and a bear market. I am inclined to keep walking.

Nevertheless, by popular demand, I will be returning on a regular basis to see what I can see on the inflation front.

I am counting on four deflationary forces to keep a lid on inflation. They are D├ętente (a.k.a. Globalization), Disruption (a.k.a. Technological Disruption), Demography (as in aging populations), and Debt (as in too much propping up zombie companies). I discussed the “4Ds” in my 2020 Fed Watching book (here is the excerpt). These forces are on one side of the tug of war over inflation. On the other side are the world’s economic policymakers. They’ve responded to the Great Virus Crisis with massive fiscal and monetary stimulus. In other words, they embraced Modern Monetary Theory. They certainly haven’t let this crisis go to waste! Let’s see what we can see in the latest price indicators:

(1) Regional prices. Five of the 12 Fed district banks conduct monthly business surveys. In addition to compiling business activity indexes, all five report prices-paid and prices-received indexes (Fig. 1). All 10 price indexes have recovered from their early-pandemic lows a year ago through January of this year. The average of the five regional prices-paid indexes is up from last year’s low of -3.6 during April to 48.4 during January, the highest since July 2018 (Fig. 2). The average of the prices-received indexes rose from -9.4 to 21.1 over this same period.

The prices-paid indexes tend to be more volatile than the prices-received indexes. That’s because the former tend to be correlated with the inflation rate of the intermediate goods Producer Price Index, or PPI (on a y/y basis), while the latter tend to be correlated with the inflation rate for the goods Consumer Price Index, or CPI (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). Intermediate goods producer prices tend to be more volatile than consumer goods prices because they are more highly correlated with commodity prices. The spread between the averages of the regional prices-paid and prices-received indexes is highly correlated with the spread between the inflation rates of the intermediate goods PPI and the goods CPI (Fig. 5).

So what do we see? Since the start of the data in 2005, the regional price indexes have been this high before at least four times. Over that same period, the core PCED (personal consumption expenditures deflator), which is the Fed’s preferred measure of consumer price inflation, hovered just above 2.0% from 2005 through most of 2008, and has remained below 2.0% from 2009 through 2020 every month with the exception of only 14 months.

(2) M-PMI prices. January’s national survey of purchasing managers in manufacturing was released on Monday. This M-PMI survey also includes a price index, but only for prices paid. It is highly correlated with the average of the regional prices-paid indexes (Fig. 6). The M-PMI prices-paid index rebounded from last year’s low of 35.3 during April to 82.1 last month, the highest reading since April 2011. Again, this index is more reflective of commodity-related costs at the intermediate PPI level than consumer goods prices. It has been this high before a few times since 2005 without leading to a pickup in CPI inflation.

Inflation II: Commodity Prices, the Dollar, and Import Prices

The latest M-PMI report included a long list of rising commodity prices with only one down, for caustic soda. Commodities in short supply included copper, corrugated boxes, electrical components, electronic components, semiconductors, and steel. All of these are included in the intermediate goods PPI.

The core intermediate goods PPI tends to be more closely correlated with the CRB raw industrials spot price index (Fig. 7). A broader measure is the CRB all commodities price index, which includes energy and food commodities (Fig. 8). Both CRB indexes have rebounded significantly since early last year, with y/y gains of 13.7% for the broader index and 16.8% for the raw materials index.

Some of this strength in commodity prices is attributable to the 3.4% y/y drop in the trade-weighted dollar (Fig. 9). The weak dollar has certainly contributed to the rebound in the inflation rate of the nonpetroleum import price index from last year’s low of -1.1% during April to 1.8% during December. In turn, rising import prices are putting upward pressure on the intermediate goods PPI (Fig. 10).

So what do we see? The rebound in commodity prices is partly attributable to the weaker dollar, but the rebound in global economic activity has also boosted these prices. In any event, while the weak dollar and strong commodity prices are boosting import prices and the intermediate goods PPI, there’s no sign that those cost pressures are boosting consumer prices.

Inflation III: CPI Inflation Here & Over There

The core CPI inflation rate in the US was only 1.6% y/y during December. The comparable measures for the Eurozone and Japan were close to zero at 0.2% and -0.5% (Fig. 11). Over the same period, the headline CPI inflation rate in China was 0.2%, while the industrial products PPI was -0.4% (Fig. 12). We are startled by the latter given that China’s economic recovery since early last year has been so strong.

So what do we see? The same as you can see: not much inflation for consumer price inflation in the US and around the world. The rebound in commodity prices, import prices, intermediate PPI prices, and prices paid could put some upward pressure on consumer prices in the US. However, the 4Ds still have a lot of pull in the tug of war over inflation.