The recent interruption in the stock market's upward trajectory could witness a resurgence in the upcoming corporate earnings season, slated to commence prominently in October. As we approach this reporting season, there is a prevailing expectation that companies will unveil improved earnings performance following three consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines. Current forecasts indicate a modest uptick of 0.5% in profits among S&P 500 constituents, contributing to an overall growth projection of 1.2% for the entirety of 2023, as reported by FactSet.
This optimistic outlook is partly attributed to analysts revising their estimates upward for the current quarter during the first two months, a phenomenon not observed since the third quarter of 2021, according to insights from John Butters.
The prospect of ascending profits marks a welcome development after a period during which the stock market's gains outpaced the expectations for profit expansion. Despite encountering declines in four out of the past six weeks, the S&P 500 has surged by 16% this year.
Nancy Curtin, Chief Investment Officer at wealth and asset management firm Alti Tiedemann Global, underscores the significance of delivering positive earnings growth, not merely reducing negativity but achieving genuine positivity, as the true barometer of market resilience.
Nonetheless, some analysts exercise caution, suggesting that the market may have already factored in a substantial portion of the anticipated improvement in earnings forecasts. They highlight that stocks still appear relatively expensive from a historical standpoint, even following the recent market pause.
Presently, the S&P 500 is trading at 18.7 times its projected earnings for the upcoming 12 months, surpassing the 10-year average of 17.7 and marking an increase from 16.8 at the conclusion of the preceding year.
Forecasts for profit performance are either at or near record highs across most sectors within the S&P 500, encompassing technology, communication services, and consumer discretionary segments. These sectors have spearheaded the index's gains for the year 2023, with technology stocks advancing by 41%, communication stocks by 43%, and consumer discretionary stocks by 32%.
In recent days, analysts have also issued their most optimistic per-share earnings estimates for the industrials sector and the utilities group, despite the challenges faced by the latter. Industrials have witnessed a 7.1% rise this year, while utilities have experienced an 11% decline.
David Lefkowitz, Head of U.S. Equities at UBS Global Wealth Management, anticipates a range-bound trajectory for stocks through year-end. Factors contributing to this outlook include the resumption of student-loan repayments, elevated energy prices, and mortgage rates. Lefkowitz's team projects that the S&P 500 will reach 4500 in December and 4700 by the following June, reflecting respective increases of 1% and 5.4% from Friday's closing levels.
Lefkowitz underscores the significance of sustained profit improvements over an extended time frame as a prerequisite for the market's further ascent.
This optimism regarding earnings coincides with growing confidence among investors and corporate leaders in the resilience of the economy. Despite the Federal Reserve's assertive interest rate hikes, consumer spending and the job market have demonstrated steadfastness. Inflation, which reached a peak of 9.1% in June 2022, has moderated to a 3.2% annual level as of July.
Investors are eagerly awaiting forthcoming data on consumer-price inflation, slated for release on Wednesday, along with producer-price figures on Thursday. These data points are pivotal in shaping expectations concerning the Federal Reserve's future actions. While the market anticipates that central bank officials will maintain rates in their upcoming meeting, CME Group's FedWatch tool assigns a 45% probability of at least one additional rate hike by year-end.
Notably, concerns about the economy within major U.S. corporations appear to be receding. Evidently, references to a "recession" during earnings calls have decreased, with 62 companies in the S&P 500 mentioning it between June 15 and August 31. This represents a decline from 113 references in the preceding reporting period and a significant reduction from the peak of 238 mentions noted in the summer of 2022, according to data.
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