US companies are expected to see their strongest profit growth in nearly 20 years after downward revisions were ‘too aggressive’
April 4, 2021
Expectations for quarterly earnings growth are at their strongest in about two decades as analysts pencil in the impact of the US economy’s acceleration out of recession, led by projections for earnings in the energy sector to more than double.
A big wave of financial reports should hit Wall Street in mid-April, with big banks including JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo among the companies that will kick off the first-quarter earnings season for 2021.
Ahead of that, Wall Street analysts are looking for S&P 500 500 companies overall to post a 6% increase in bottom-up per-share earnings, according to FactSet. A 6% rise would represent the largest increase since the financial-data firm began tracking the earnings estimate in the second quarter of 2002. Earnings, on average, are currently expected to come in at $39.86 per share.
The bottom-up EPS estimate is an aggregation of the median first-quarter earnings-per-share estimates for all of the companies in the S&P 500, FactSet said in a note published Thursday.
The projected 6% increase stands out in part because a bottom-up EPS estimate usually decreases during a quarter. FactSet said during the past five years, the estimate has recorded a decline of 4.2% during a quarter, and during the past 15 years, it has tended to post a decrease of 5.1%.
Analysts “may have been too aggressive in their downward revisions to EPS estimates during the first half of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns,” wrote John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet, in looking at the factors behind the boost in first-quarter projections.
The global economy sunk into recession last year as the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses worldwide to close or reduce operations to curb the spread of the respiratory disease. The US economy contracted by 33% in the second quarter of 2020.
But analysts in the third quarter of 2020 began raising their earnings expectations for that quarter and beyond. FactSet foresees US gross domestic product expanding by 5.7% in 2021, higher than the projected 4% rate on December 31.
Rising commodity prices and interest rates also appear to be fueling upward revisions. Oil prices have jumped by more than 20% to top $59 a barrel during the first quarter and the yield on the 10-year Treasury note quickly scaled up above 1.7% during the first three months of this year from 0.92%.
The highest percentage increases in bottom-up EPS estimates are for the energy, materials, and financials sectors as they are “likely benefitting from either higher commodity prices (Energy and Materials) or higher interest rates (Financials),” said Butters.
Per-share earnings estimates for the energy sector have shot up by 123%, to $2.55 from $1.14, the largest boost in projections among the 11 sectors tracked on the S&P 500 index. The financial sector is forecast to post a collective earnings increase of about 13% for the first quarter.
“Finally, companies in the S&P 500 have been much more optimistic in their EPS guidance than normal,” said Butters, noting that 61 companies have issued positive first-quarter guidance, well above the five-year average of 35.
“If 61 is the final number for the quarter, it will mark the highest number of S&P 500 companies issuing positive EPS guidance for a quarter since FactSet began tracking this metric in 2006,” he said.