Summary: For the third quarter (3Q17), S&P earnings rose 12% yoy, sales grew 6% and profit margins expanded to new all-time highs.
These strong results are not due to the rebound in oil prices. Sales for the sectors with the highest weighting in the S&P have grown an average of 7% in the past year and 19% in the past 3 years. Moreover, margins outside of energy have expanded to a new high of 10.8%.
Bearish pundits continue to repeat several misconceptions: that "operating earnings" are deviating more than usual from GAAP measurements; that share reductions (buybacks) are behind most EPS growth; and that equity gains are unreasonably out of proportion to earnings growth. None of these are correct. Continued growth in employment, wages and consumption tell us that corporate financial results should be improving, as they have in fact done.
Where critics have a valid point is valuation: even excluding energy, the S&P is now more highly valued than anytime outside of the late 1990s technology bubble. With economic growth of 4-5% (nominal) and margins already at new highs, it will take excessive bullishness among investors to propel S&P price appreciation at a significantly faster rate. At this point, lower valuations are a notable risk to equity returns.
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92% of the companies in the S&P 500 have released their 3Q17 financial reports. The headline numbers are good. Overall sales are 6% higher than a year ago, the second best growth rate in nearly 6 years. Earnings (GAAP-basis) are 12% higher than a year ago. Profit margins are at a new high of 10.2%, exceeding the prior peak from 2014.
Before looking at the details of the current reports, it's worth addressing some common misconceptions that are regularly cited.
First, financial reports are said to be fake. This complaint has been a feature of every bull market since at least the 1990s. In truth, the trend in GAAP earnings (red line) is the same as "operating earnings" (blue line; all financial data in this post is from S&P).
It's accurate to say that operating earnings somewhat overstate and smooth profits compared earnings based on GAAP, but that is not new. In fact, the difference between operating and GAAP earnings in 3Q17 was about 11%, which is normal (i.e., it equals the 25-year median of 10%). Operating earnings overstated profits by much more in the 1990s and earlier in the current bull market. The biggest differences have always been during bear markets. In short, recent deviations from GAAP are unremarkable when compared to history.