Profits Are Down; Is That Bad For Stocks?

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Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: Calafia Beach Pundit

The recent release of the final estimate of Q4/15 GDP stats revealed that growth was stronger than had been previously estimated (1.4% now vs. 0.7% in the first estimate). It also brought us our first look at corporate profits for the quarter. After-tax profits were unquestionably weak, down 8% or so from the prior quarter, and down 12% from year-ago levels, after adjusting for inventory valuation and capital consumption allowances. (Without adjustments, after-tax corporate profits were down 8% for the quarter and 3.6% for the year.) As a percent of GDP, however, after-tax profits were still substantially above their long-term average.

So, good news and bad news. Growth has slowed but the economy is not collapsing; profits are no longer growing and they are down on the margin. However, profits are still unusually strong relative to GDP. It is likely, of course, that profits have been depressed of late because of distress in the oil patch, but this doesn't change the more sobering fact that profits have not been growing much, if at all, for several years.

P/E ratios today are somewhat above their long-term average, so considering that profits are flat to down would suggest that equity valuations today are unattractive. (Contrast this to a similar post I made in May 2013, in which I argued that valuations were quite attractive.) But there are other considerations worth noting (see below), and on balance, I think that for long-term investors willing to overlook the current weakness, equities are still attractive.

The chart above compares the two measures of corporate profits that I am referring to in this post; one as calculated in the National Income and Products Accounts, and the other as reported by S&P 500 companies according to GAAP standards. A few years ago, I discussed the difference between the two measures of profits here, concluding that of the two, the NIPA measure is probably the better one. Regardless, both have been flat to down of late.

The chart above shows the conventional P/E ratio of the S&P 500 index as calculated by Bloomberg. Today's PE of 18.5 is about 10% above its long-term average of 16.7. Based on this simple fact, one could conclude that equities are somewhat unattractive, yet not nearly as unattractive as they were in the late 1990s.

The chart above calculates the P/E ratio of the S&P 500 using corporate profits as calculated in the GDP stats as the "E," and normalizing the result to match the average of the conventional P/E ratio. (It also assumes that the S&P 500 index is a decent proxy for the price of all corporate equities, which is quite defensible.) This arguably has several advantages relative to the conventional method of calculating P/E ratios. Instead of using 12-month trailing earnings as in a conventional analysis, this method uses the annualized profits of the most recent quarter, thus giving us a more contemporaneous measure of multiples.

Furthermore, NIPA profits are based on actual profits as reported to the IRS, which are quite unlikely to be overstated or otherwise distorted by accounting methods, or by equity buybacks. Interestingly, this method gives us a similar conclusion: P/E ratios are somewhat higher today than their long-term average. In recent years, this method has yielded P/E ratios that were below average. Clearly, equities are no longer "cheap," but neither are they grossly overvalued.

The chart above compares NIPA corporate profits to nominal GDP. Both y-axes have a similar ratio scale, and are plotted in log fashion so that increases and decreases are representative of changes of similar magnitude.

The chart above shows the ratio of corporate profits to nominal GDP, using the data from the previous chart. Here we see how profits have been much higher relative to GDP in the past decade or so than they were in prior decades, and they remain substantially above their long-term average. This has led many skeptics to argue that profits will eventually mean-revert to a much lower level of GDP.

I've argued in a prior post that the unusually strong growth of profits in recent decades is most likely due to globalization, which has had the effect of significantly expanding the market for U.S. corporations. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) can sell iPhones to billions of customers today, whereas that would have been impossible just a few decades ago. I would also note that when the after tax profits of U.S. corporations are compared to global GDP, they don't appear to be unusually high at all. That further suggests that profits relative to U.S. GDP needn't be mean-reverting. It could well be that profits have a higher floor, relative to GDP, than in the past, and that downside risks from here are not significant, so long as the global economy does not collapse.

The chart above shows the difference between the earnings yield (the inverse of the P/E ratio) on the S&P 500 and the yield on 10-yr Treasuries. This represents the premium that investors demand in order to accept the risk of equities versus the security of Treasuries. The premium has not often been as high as it is today, and that's especially noteworthy. Consider: investors today are willing to pay more than $50 for a dollar's worth of 10-yr Treasury coupons, but only $18 or so for a dollar's worth of corporate earnings. That huge difference is symptomatic, I would argue, of a deep-seated risk aversion on the part of the world's investors.

Considering that the upside potential of equities is likely much greater than the upside potential of Treasuries (given the very low level of Treasury yields), it's interesting that the world's capital markets are apparently indifferent to earning less than 2% on bonds at a time when the earnings yield on equities (currently 5.4%) is considerably higher. This is another way of saying that the market has priced in very pessimistic assumptions for future growth and profits. All it takes to be bullish these days is to hold a less pessimistic view of the future than the market holds.

The chart above compares the level of the S&P 500 index to the ratio of the Vix Index to the 10-yr Treasury yield, the latter being a proxy for the market's level of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. For the past two years, rising levels of fear and uncertainty have corresponded reliably to declining equity values, and vice versa. This again confirms my view that equity prices currently are depressed because the market is still worried about the future.

The chart above illustrates the "Rule of 20," a valuation tool that is based on the belief that stocks are fairly valued if the trailing 12-month P/E ratio on stocks equals 20 minus inflation. (The idea being that P/E ratios should move inversely to levels of inflation; rising inflation drives interest rates and discount rates higher, thus depressing the present value of future earnings.) The Core Personal Consumption Deflator is currently about 1.7, which suggests a "fair value" P/E ratio of 18.3, which is almost exactly equal to the current P/E ratio of the S&P 500. Stocks by this measure appear fairly valued.

Conclusion: Stocks may be somewhat overvalued based on the level of P/E ratios, but corporate profits remain robust and equities hold the promise of delivering substantially higher returns than risk-free alternatives. For investors that are willing to take the long view - that the U.S. economy is likely to continue to grow, albeit slowly - stocks are still attractive.