Economic statistics have been terrible of late. And this is not because we’ve had disappointing job growth, tepid home sales, or slipping consumer confidence. What’s really terrible is that the gloomy macro data distracted investors from the powerful momentum propelling corporate profits.
Weighing those inputs is a daily challenge. Sure it’s nice that General Electric (GE) nipped its earnings estimates on the strength of a 14% revenue surge in its industrial businesses. But how long can that go on with Spanish bond yields topping 6%?
There’s been a lot of discussion of late about when record corporate profit margins might revert to their long-term average far below current levels, and my guess would be not for a good long while. The corporate advantages in cost of capital, economies of scale, and global sourcing seem well entrenched. Corporations have never had this much economic or political clout, leaving them in a strong bargaining position relative to governments and labor.
This doesn’t make them immune from global slumps, of course. But the really smart investing strategy over the last three years would have been to completely ignore all government statistics and focus solely on company commentary.
That would have meant buying the cyclical turn in 2009, and then staying the course through quantitative easings, debt crises, and monthly shifts in homebuilder sentiment. Because corporate profits never wavered.
And we haven’t even seen what companies that weathered the Great Recession and have emerged from it with record cash stashes can do in really good times. I suspect they’ll waste a lot of that cash on expensive acquisitions.
The time to sell and go away is not in May; it’s when the empire builders have leveraged themselves to the hilt—and this may take a while.