Profit estimates may be adding in too much cost risk


By Caroline Valetkevitch

NEW YORK, Feb 15 () - As Wall Street braces for the first quarterly decline in earnings in nearly three years, some investors are wondering if the market is factoring in a bigger erosion in profit margins than will actually come to pass.

Forecasts for U.S. earnings, after a big boost from corporate tax cuts in 2018, are falling sharply in 2019. But revenue forecasts remain relatively robust, leaving an expected spike in costs as the main reason for profitability to weaken.

"Companies since the 2008 trauma have made it a top priority to maintain and increase, if possible, their profit margins," said Ed Yardeni, president and chief investment strategist of Yardeni Research.

"We don't expect that labor compensation and other costs will squeeze margins. Nor do we expect that an increase in those costs will boost prices," he added. "Rather, we are betting on improving productivity."

Besides the tightening labor market, the trade war between the United States and China and the stronger U.S. dollar are among the biggest potential risks to corporate margins this year.

Projected revenue for S&P 500 companies has been more resilient, with first-quarter revenue growth estimated at 5.3 percent, based on Refinitiv's data.

Credit Suisse strategists said profit margins are holding up better than the estimates suggest, at least for the majority of S&P 500 companies.

They said profit margins are eroding sharply for several

A recent drop in oil prices has hurt margins for energy companies, a slowdown in the semiconductor business cycle has hit companies in that space and other firms have boosted investment expenses, said Patrick Palfrey, senior equity strategist at Credit Suisse Securities in New York.

"It's not a broad-based macro issue," he said. "When you look at the median company, we see margins quite stable."

Moreover, worries that a tight labor market will drive up wages have been limited in earnings calls for the fourth-quarter reporting period, which is nearing an end.

Also, they wrote, most management teams "expected growth in the U.S. economy to moderate, but remain positive."

"When the overall economy is relatively strong, that typically means there's still sufficient demand for products and it helps stabilize margins in general," said Keith Lerner, chief market strategist atSunTrust Advisory Services in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


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