Corporate Profits And Stock Market Returns - It's Complicated

Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: Dorsey Wright Money Management

By Andy Hyer

There is never any shortage of big scary things to worry about when it comes to the stock market. Savita Subramanian from Bank of America recently weighed in on her current concerns on earnings growth:

Publicly traded companies have seen negative earnings growth two quarters in a row and there are no fundamental underpinnings for the rally, Savita Subramanian, BofAML's head of U.S. equity and quantitative strategy, said on CNBC's "Fast Money" this week.

"We are in a profits recession. There (are) no two ways around it," said Subramanian, whose S&P 500 price target of 2,000 is among the lowest on Wall Street. She is also concerned about how Federal Reserve monetary policy could affect stocks.

"You have the Fed embarking on a long, slow tightening cycle. Tightening into a profits recession doesn't sound like anything to throw a big party about," she said.

Ben Carlson saw her comments and decided to take a closer look at the historical relationship between profit growth and stock market returns.

One of the biggest problems in the world of finance is that people make proclamations without backing it up with evidence. So I wanted to see what the historical relationship looks like between profit growth and stock market returns. Using Federal Reserve data on corporate profits, I looked back at the historical growth rate of profits by decade and compared them to that decade's stock market returns (using the S&P 500):

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Now let's break things down even further by market type:

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(Although the S&P 500 was up 6% per year in the 1966-1981 period, many consider this a sideways market because the Dow went nowhere from a price perspective and once you take inflation into account real returns were basically zero.)

There's really not much of a discernible pattern that can be detected here. High profit growth has led to both high and low stock market returns throughout the post-WWII period. There were also times of low profit growth with high stock market returns.

The greatest profit growth was seen in two of the worst-performing stock market decades - the 1970s and 2000s. But those periods were markedly different as the 70s saw sky-high inflation with rising interest rates while the 2000s had low inflation and falling rates.

After accounting for inflation, the 1980s only saw profit growth of roughly 1.6%, but stocks returned more than 17% per year (12% real). The 1950s and 1960s saw one of the greatest bull markets of all-time, but profit growth was basically average. Profits growth has been non-existent during the latest bull market cycle, but stocks are up gangbusters anyways.

This may seem highly blasphemous to die hard fundamentalists who often fall into the trap of thinking that success in the stock market is mostly a matter of accounting. It is not. Rather, it all comes back to what investors are willing to pay for those earnings. Thus the need for technical analysis!