I have been writing about analyst earnings forecasts for some time. Earnings forecasts just keep dropping. I talked with the very interesting and gentlemanly Howard Silverblat from Standard & Poors, who is in charge of assembling the data for the S&P earnings. When I went to the web site, I noticed that "core" earnings were not on the spreadsheet. Core earnings take into account pension fund commitments and other items that sometimes do not make it into reported or operating earnings. During the last bear market, core earnings were a lot lower than reported earnings, as companies adjusted their pension commitments to make things look better than they were. I was wondering if we would see the same thing happening now.
I asked Howard about that, and he said they were having some issues in calculating them but expected the core earnings numbers to be back up in a month or so. And he quoted sources that suggested S&P companies were underfunded by $250 billion in their defined-benefit pension plans. Late last year, the Bush administration waived the requirement that companies fund their pensions to at least 92% of needed capital. It is now down to 80%. That leaves companies some room to play with on their balance sheets.
I commented on how bad earnings were last quarter. The web site shows earnings were a negative $3.14 a share, the first time they have ever been negative for a quarter. Ever! That was with 65% of companies reporting. He commented that it was worse than that. They don't have it up yet, but with 78% of companies reporting, losses are now a staggering -$8.56 a share. And it could get worse. The write-offs this quarter are just huge.
As he wrote, companies are not only throwing in the kitchen sink, but the refrigerator, washer, and anything else they can find as they seek to write off everything they can, to get it over with and start the new year fresh. They need to do a kitchen remodel, but there is no financing available.
So, how does that affect total earnings for 2008? The table above shows analyst projections from March of 2007 through today. Notice how they kept falling over time. They are now down 70% from what was expected two years ago. Earnings for 2008 are a paltry $29.57 and dropping. The S&P 500 closed at 868.60. That makes the P/E (price to earnings) ratio 29.4. (I use a decimal to show I have a sense of humor.)
So, what are they projecting for 2009? Let's take a look. Notice that they too have been falling over time.
If the S&P 500 were to close where it is today, and using the estimates for the first two quarters of 2009, the P/E ratio would be 36.4 on July 1.
But what if earnings merely fall to where they were in the last recession, or about 55-60% of where the projections are today? That would drop the 12-month trailing earnings for the four quarters ending June 30 to $15.90 and result in a nose-bleed P/E of 54.7 by the middle of the year.
If earnings don't come in dramatically better for the first quarter as opposed to last quarter, we could be setting up for a nasty summer bear market. Even in the bear market of 2001-2, the P/E did not get above 47. Which, by the way, at a 47 multiple would correspond to a range for the S&P of either 1111 if the earnings come in as projected or 731 if they come in at the lower range.
I see nothing on the horizon which suggests the economy is going to get manifestly stronger in the next two quarters. The real risk is that earnings come in weak for both quarters and investors simply despair this summer, throwing in the towel and bringing about a vicious bear market. I would seriously consider hedging any long positions you have before earnings season this next April. If they come in stronger, then we will see.
John Mauldin Newsletter, 2.6.09