Today the Standard & Poor’s 500 matched a 12-week high and made yet another assault on a new all-time record. Better than expected earnings have been the market driver. Some 81% of the S&P 500 companies that have reported for the quarter so far have beat earnings estimates. That’s near a record pace of earnings beats.
But (you know there’s always a “but” right?) Wall Street analysts have been cutting their estimates for 2020 earnings at a torrid pace. In the last week, Bloomberg calculates, Wall Street has cut earnings estimates for 2020 by almost $1 to $178.40 a share. Earnings are still expected to expand by 10% in 2020, after growing by just 2% in 2019, but the downward revisions are raising fears that the market might be looking at another drop like that at the end of 2018. Then earnings forecasts peaked in September and then slumped by 8%. And that triggered a steep drop–nearly a 20% bear-market drop–at the end of 2018.
The worry about a drop in 2020 earnings forecasts and a resulting drop in stock prices has been fed by another recent pattern. For those companies missing both revenue and earnings forecasts, the drop after bad news has been far more severe than usual. According to Bank of America, companies that missed on both revenue and earnings saw their shares trail the market by 3.9 percentage points on the first day after the bad news. That compares to a historical average drop of 2.4 percentage points.
There is, unfortunately, good reason to think that estimates have to come down for 2020. Sales growth across the S&P 500 looks to be subdued at 3% to 4% for 2020, according to DataTrek Research. Higher wages and input costs will cut into any earnings gains from sales growth.
And then there’s the central bank effect. Interest rate cuts from the Federal Reserve and other central banks have boosted stock markets this year. But if the Fed cuts again in October and December for a total of four cuts in 2019, it’s hard to see the Fed matching that in 2020.
The big challenge right now for investors, in my opinion, is figuring out when U.S. stocks might see an “earnings guidance reset” and how deep it might be. My best guess is that earnings guidance reckoning is most likely to come with the announcement of fourth quarter 2019 earnings in January with selective sell offs in big disappointment stories in the coming few weeks.