Eleven were positive surprises (that is, earnings per share beat consensus by more than 2 cents), while six -- including Oracle -- missed expectations in the three months through November. At 26%, that's the highest share of early reporters to trail estimates, according to the UBS strategy team led by Thomas Doerflinger.
Sure, the sample size is small. The
S&P 500 Index
has more than 20 times the number of companies that have reported fourth-quarter results so far. However, the UBS strategists note that the 26% of companies that have missed expectations so far is the largest amount of weak early reporters in the past three quarters. Over that time, only 15% of early reporters, on average, disappointed.
"Oracle's large, broad-based, and highly unusual miss on both EPS and revenue is ominous evidence of weaker macro trends (not market share losses) in the view of UBS analyst Brent Thill," UBS said in a research note released Thursday.
Doerflinger and his team note that weak results from
, along with Oracle's report, point to weaker tech demand. And the team does acknowledge that the results out of companies like
However, the strategists say "the overall profit picture is deteriorating, and we expect this trend to continue as emerging markets slow and Europe's recession deepens." They note that since mid-November, the fourth-quarter bottom-up consensus estimate for S&P 500 earnings has slid by 1% to $24.51, and that is still above their own $24 estimate for the quarter.
UBS's cautious stance deserves more attention. Worries have persisted for a few quarters now that corporate earnings are about to peak. With a slow-growth economic environment, the last thing investors need now is to have companies have revenue and earnings growth decline year over year.
"It's the potential for a turning point in the cycle," says John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet. "We're approaching the peak of the earnings cycle. Will it be this quarter or next? It's hard to say. But the comparisons aren't easier anymore. You're reaching a point where we're at record level earnings. How long can that continue? You have the risk for earnings growth to stop."
Butters says that of the companies he's followed, he's seeing similar trends that the UBS analysts are. Of the 19 S&P 500 companies to report fourth-quarter results so far, 58% have beat estimates while 42% have missed. Again, Butters notes the small sample size and how hard it is to extrapolate those numbers across all 500 constituents, but he's still concerned about the trend.
"If we continue to see that, which is a huge 'if,' that'd be the most out of the last eight quarters at least," he says. What's more troubling, Butters says, is that companies have already taken down guidance substantially, which should have tempered expectations.
"This is another quarter that we saw significant cuts, so the bar should be easier to get over," Butters says. "The growth rate was to be 19% at the start of the quarter, and that's down to 12.2% as of today. We've seen more negative preannouncements than normal. These have been the sharpest cuts we've seen Q2 of 2009."
At a sector level, Butters says he has seen estimates come down 20% in places like telecom, which "is a huge amount. There are certainly worrying signs out there."
Twenty-three companies is a small sample. But with the earnings hurdle becoming tougher to get over, we could indeed be seeing the peak of the earnings cycle. Not to scare you, but the last time we've seen something like this was 2007, Butters says, when we hit peak earnings at the midpoint of the year. The
and S&P 500 hit all-time highs only a few months later in October.
And we all remember what happened after that.
-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston
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