Corporate earnings are likely to end this year with a fourth-straight quarterly decline, but a profit rebound may be appearing on the horizon, analysts say.
Despite the continuing struggle with the virus pandemic, profits for companies in the S&P 500 held up surprisingly well in the third-quarter. That's a signal to investors looking for clues as to how companies can see their way to a more normal post-pandemic economy.
While the S&P showed an overall 6% drop in earnings last quarter, it was significantly better than analysts' June forecast of a 24% drop. Airlines, hotels and energy companies were the biggest checks on corporate profits. Without those battered sectors the rest of the index reported growth of 4.3% thanks to the unexpectedly solid performance from most other industries.
“They have really done an amazing job in an incredibly difficult environment,” said Katie Nixon, chief investment officer at Northern Trust Wealth Management.
Clorox, Tyson Foods and other consumer goods companies showed strong earnings growth as the pandemic continued to favor spending on home products and groceries. Meanwhile, the sector that includes more discretionary consumer spending reported only a 3.5% drop, a surprise considering that cruise line operators and hotels are still struggling as people refrain from travel.
Bath & Body Works owner L Brands stood out as the pandemic prompted a boost in shopping for personal care items. Appliance-maker Whirlpool, home improvement retailer Home Depot and electronics retailer Best Buy all reported much higher profit amid a similar shift in spending toward home improvement and electronics as more people spent time in their homes.
Health care companies and even industrial companies outside of the airline industry also showed resilience.
Looking ahead, profits are expected to fall again this quarter — their longest stretch of declines since 2016 — before bouncing back in the first half of 2021. Many companies that are benefiting from people staying and shopping at home will continue to grow, while airlines and hotels are likely to remain in a rut.
Wall Street is betting a vaccine will start to be distributed by the end of this month and gain wide distribution in the spring, essentially putting the economy back on a normal path.
Analysts polled by FactSet forecast a slight gain in the first quarter of 2021, followed by a surge in the second quarter as beaten down companies bounce back.
“The power of that rebound will add to an environment where the rest of the market is expected to continue to grow,” Nixon said.