Earnings season is once again upon us, and so far it’s been extremely good. According to data compiled by Factset on April 20 (before Facebook’s, Chipotle’s, and Google’s earnings blew expectations), a total of 80% of companies reported earnings above expectations. This is incredible on its own, but add on to the fact that earnings expectations were set for 17% earnings growth across the board, and the beats are that much more impressive.
And this is all happening in a flat to slightly-down market.
After the S&P 500 fell 10% from its high in early 2018, the index has recovered only hesitantly, in fits and starts, so that it’s right now up a couple hundred basis points. For a strong earnings season with strong GDP numbers, which are ticking upwards and likely to rise to 3% by the end of 2018, this price weakness has confounded some.
Of course, there is a very simple explanation for this, and the mainstream financial press is emphasizing it: interest rates. With Treasury rates rising above 3% for the first time since January 2014 (when they very, very briefly eclipsed the 3% level, and very quickly fell afterwards), pretty much everyone is expecting interest rates to keep rising. And if investors can get a solid, reliable 3% risk-free return, so the thinking goes, what motivation to they have to invest in the S&P 500 where the dividend yield is just a bit above half that?
Then there is the debt issue. The LIBOR has been skyrocketing lately, rising above 2.5% with expectations for it to eclipse 3% before the end of the year on the 6-month rate. Since LIBOR is the benchmark for corporate debt, won’t this make debt harder to service for companies, crimping their free cash flow and resulting in weaker ROI and balance sheets?
These are the questions that inevitably come up with higher interest rates—but the answers aren’t necessarily clear. Right now, the market seems to be convinced that these are headwinds for companies that need to be priced in—but few outside of the institutional investor world are actually doing the calculation.
What I mean by “the calculation” is quite simple: analysts right now need to start modeling a couple of things. Firstly, how aggregate demand for stocks will be impacted by higher interest rates. Secondly, and arguably much more importantly, exactly how much earnings will suffer from higher interest rates—while also taking into account how earnings will benefit from concomitant increases in sales and earnings due to a stronger economy.
This calculation isn’t easy to do, and there’s as much art as science to making these calculations. Which, presumably, is why they aren’t being discussed in financial outlets too much. But these calculations are the unspoken assumptions behind the “higher rates are bad” refrain that has become so popular among financial pundits today. Analysts need to question those assumptions with hard math.