Mike Wilson: Is the Worst of this Earnings Cycle Still Ahead?
As we enter the final month of the first quarter, recalling the history of bear market trends could help predict whether earnings will fall again.
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Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Mike Wilson, Chief Investment Officer and Chief U.S. Equity Strategist for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the latest trends in the financial marketplace. It's Monday, February 27th at 11am in New York. So let's get after it.
Our equity strategy framework incorporates several key components. Overall earnings tend to determine price action the most. For example, if a company beats the current forecast on earnings and shows accelerating growth, the stock tends to go up, assuming it isn't egregiously priced. This dynamic is what drives most bull markets, earnings estimates are steadily rising with no end in sight to that trend. During bear markets, however, that is not the case. Instead, earnings forecasts are typically falling. Needless to say, falling earnings forecasts are a rarity for such a high quality diversified index like the S&P 500, and that's why bear markets are much more infrequent than bull markets. However, once they start, it's very hard to argue the bear markets over until those earnings forecasts stop falling.
Stocks have bottomed both before, after and coincidentally with those troughs in earnings estimates. If this bear market turns out to have ended in October of last year, it will be the farthest in advance that stocks have discounted the trough in forward 12 month earnings. More importantly, this assumes earnings estimates have indeed troughed, which is unlikely in our view. In fact, our top down earnings models suggest that estimates aren't likely to trough until September, which would put the trough in stocks still in front of us. Finally, we would note that the Fed's reaction function is very different today given the inflationary backdrop. In fact, during every material earnings recession over the past 30 years, the Fed was already easing policy before we reached the trough in EPS forecasts. They are still tightening today.
During such periods, there is usually a vigorous debate as to when the earnings estimates will trough. This uncertainty creates the very choppy price action we witness during bear markets, which can include very sharp rallies like the one we've experienced over the past year. Furthermore, earnings forecasts have started to flatten out, but we would caution that this is what typically happens during bear markets. The stock's fall in the last month of the calendar quarter as they discount upcoming results and then rally when the forward estimates actually come down. Over the past year, this pattern has been observed with stocks selling off the month leading up to the earnings season and then rallying on the relief that the worst may be behind us. We think that dynamic is at work again this quarter, with the stocks selling off in December in anticipation of bad news and then rallying on the relief it's the last cut. Given that we are about to enter the last calendar month of the first quarter later this week, we think the risk of stocks falling further is high.
Bottom line, we don't believe the earnings forecasts are done and we think they're going to fall again in the next few months. This is a key debate in the market, and our take is that while the economic data appears to have stabilized and even turned up again in certain areas, our negative operating leverage cycle is alive and well and could overwhelm any economic scenario over the next six months. We remain defensive going into March with the worst of this earnings cycle still ahead of us.
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