Given the uncertainty of the current geopolitical environment, first-quarter earnings season will be very closely monitored and more important than usual. The atmosphere is rife with risk. Noting “seismic waves” from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and warning that inflation was now a “clear and present danger,” The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for global economic growth by nearly a full percentage point this week. The IMF also indicated that Ukraine’s GDP could collapse by 35% this year and Russia’s economy could shrink by 8.5%. Emerging and developing Europe (which includes both Russia and Ukraine) are forecasted to decline by 2.9%. The IMF also pointed out that these forecasts are in jeopardy for many reasons, including the likelihood of more sanctions on Russia, global food shortages, and tightening monetary policies. With this backdrop, investors will be riveted, not only on first-quarter results, but on corporate guidance for the rest of 2022.
To date, first-quarter earnings results are mixed. International Business Machine (IBM – $129.15) reported it expects to hit the top end of its revenue growth forecast for 2022 even though it expects a hit of a “few hundred million dollars” from the suspension of its business in Russia. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ -$183.08) cut both ends of its full-year profit forecast by 25 cents lowering expectations to $10.15 to $10.35 per share. JNJ cited currency fluctuations rather than fundamental business issues for the decline, and simultaneously raised its dividend by 6.6%. Meanwhile, Netflix Inc. (NFLX – $348.61) cratered 24% after the bell when it reported that subscriber numbers had declined for the first time in a decade. The streaming company lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter; but more disturbingly, it expects to lose an additional 2 million subscribers due to competition from Apple Inc. (AAPL – $167.40) and Walt Disney (DIS – $131.90). Account sharing and other challenges are also having a negative impact. Tesla (TSLA – $1028.15) reports earnings on Wednesday and investors will be watching and listening, not only for earnings results but to hear if Elon Musk discusses his bid for Twitter Inc. (TWTR -$46.16). On April 14, Musk offered to buy all Twitter shares for $54.20 per share and take the company private. This bid has been the most-followed story of the last week and the company responded by adopting a poison pill to thwart Musk. Twitter, which reports earnings on April 28, is listed by IBES Refinitiv as one of several companies likely to have a negative earnings surprise this quarter.
Stock Prices, Rising Interest Rates and Earnings
IBES Refinitiv is currently forecasting first-quarter earnings growth for the S&P 500 to be 6.3% YOY but excluding the energy sector – where profits are expected to rise 241.2% YOY — growth falls to 0.7% YOY. In short, 2022 is likely to be a difficult year for most companies and as we have been indicating in recent weeks, earnings growth needs to be substantial to counter the negative impact of rising inflation and interest rates.
There is much confusion about rising interest rates and stock market performance. Stocks can, and often have rallied in a rising interest rate environment. In fact, rising interests rates and a strong economy typically go hand-in-hand and as a result, good earnings growth offsets the negative impact of rising interest rates and PE compression. This explains why first-quarter results and corporate guidance will be important this season. If PE multiples cannot expand, the only driving force for equities will be rising earnings.
Meanwhile, it appears that the Fed is warning us that interest rates are about to rise quickly and substantially this year. St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard recently stated that he believes the fed funds rate needs to rise to 3.5% by the end of the year in order to slow the current 40-year-high inflation pace. He also said he would not rule out a 75-basis point rate hike in May, although his preferred rate path would be 50 basis-point hikes at each of the six remaining FOMC meetings this year. Separately, Chicago Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Evans said the Fed should raise its target range to 2.25%-2.5% by year end and then take stock of the state of the economy. If inflation remained high, the Fed could hike rates further. We have noted that most Fed policymakers estimate neutral to be somewhere between 2.25% and 2.5%.
All in all, these various comments by current Fed governors are tempering the markets for the Fed’s next move and to date, investors are responding well to the fact that rates will soon rise at least 50 basis points. We do not sense any panic, but we fear this could be temporary. In our opinion, the Fed is aware that it needs to slow the economy, and in order to tame inflation, they must tap the breaks on the housing market and auto sales. Unfortunately, steering the economy to a soft landing may be extremely difficult, particularly with the tenuous situation in Europe. We remain cautious and continue to emphasize areas of the market that benefit from inflation or can weather inflation such as energy, utilities, defense stocks, and staples. See page 12. Plus, stocks with solid dividends are good substitutes for bonds in a rising rate landscape.
The NAHB single-family confidence survey for April revealed that homebuilders have had a slow, but steady decline in conviction for the first four months of the year. Housing starts and housing permits were higher in March, up 3.9% and 6.7% YOY, respectively; but unfortunately, the increase in both series was in multi-unit housing. Single-family permits and housing starts, which account for the biggest share of homebuilding, fell in March. See page 3.
Industrial production for March rose to a record high, edging above the August 2018 peak. March’s gain was driven by a rebound in auto and truck manufacturing where production had been weak for most of 2021 due to semiconductor supply problems. Electric & gas capacity utilization eased in March. Whereas electric & gas capacity utilization used to be a benchmark for defining activity in the manufacturing sector, the steady decline in utilization since May 1970 is a display of the energy efficiencies seen in the US over the last five decades. See page 4.
In March, total retail & food sales rose 6.9% YOY. Excluding autos, sales rose 9.1%, and excluding autos and gas, retail sales rose 6.2%. The volatility in retail sales in early 2021 makes year-over-year comparisons difficult and less meaningful. Still, with inflation up 8.6% YOY in the same time period that retail sales rose 6.9% YOY, this means real sales were negative in March. Equally important, gas station sales rose 17.1% YOY in the month as a result of soaring gas prices. See page 5.
Stock prices appear to be in the midst of a rally, but due to a convergence of moving averages, important resistance levels are directly overhead in all the indices. This convergence/resistance is most apparent in the SPX at 4500 and in the DJIA at 35,000. The Nasdaq Composite Index and Russell 2000 have weaker charts and remain well below their 200-day moving averages. See page 8. Last week AAII bullish sentiment fell 8.9 points to 15.8%, the lowest since September 1992. Sentiment has been unusually volatile this year, but this low bullish sentiment is a positive for the longer term.
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