Much like January of last year, U.S. stocks are off to a rocky start in the New Year, thanks to a European economy on the verge of stall speed and a plummeting price of oil that’s making investors feel like something other than a small surplus of excess production is afoot. Even after the recent volatility, blue chip stock prices have still tripled since their lows exiting the financial crisis in 2009 and have outperformed international stocks by a whopping 70 percent over the past five years. The question on everyone’s mind is whether a U.S. economy, having now wrapped up what we expect to have been its third consecutive quarter of 3 percent or better growth, can continue to decouple from troubled economies abroad. We still believe that will be the case, as Americans benefit from lower energy prices and a much healthier job market, but positive equity returns in 2015 aren’t likely to come as easily as they did last year.
Banking on Profits?
Our expectation is for U.S. profits to grow by mid-to-high single digit rates in 2015 but, at least for the final quarter of last year, Wall Street expectations are much more subdued. As the fourth quarter earnings season kicks off, investors are expecting earnings to have grown at just a 1 percent clip, reflecting plunging oil prices that will assuredly dent the profits of big oil companies like Chevron and Exxon. What Wall Street may be missing is the positive impact of low oil and natural gas prices on 90 percent of the market’s constituents that are net users of oil and natural gas. While earnings for multi-national companies are likely to be dampened by the stronger U.S. dollar, a clear plurality of publicly traded companies will benefit from lower energy costs that should help boost profit margins.
Regardless of your persuasion, few will argue about the decidedly poor results that banks delivered this week as JP Morgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup reported earnings that collectively fell by 12 percent in the period. Unfortunately for investors, the numbers came up short of expectations in all but one case (Wells Fargo), prompting sell-offs in all four names. While lending volumes have picked up in recent quarters, net interest margins are under pressure as deposit costs remain near zero and new loans are underwritten at increasingly low rates. JP Morgan demonstrated that legal costs related to the housing crash remain a meaningful expense item years after the fact, while each of the investment banks reported disappointing results from fixed income, commodities, and currency trading. As reporting season transitions to a broader swath of companies next week, we expect to see more encouraging results.
In a move only mildly surprising to those who have followed its travails in Canada, Target announced this week that it will be exiting the country just two years after its first store opening up north. Having never made a penny there, the general merchandiser’s new CEO Brian Cornell has pulled the plug, acknowledging that management couldn’t foresee profits before 2020. The result of Target’s Canadian misadventures? Nearly $6 billion of accumulated losses and write-downs, equivalent to more than the company’s entire profitability for the past two years combined. Yes, this is what gets CEO’s fired, and is a key reason why prior leader Gregg Steinhafel showed himself to the door early last year.
Our Takeaways from the Week
- Lower stock prices in the New Year reflect worries about flagging growth internationally and dislocations in key foreign currencies
- Fourth quarter earnings season is off to an inauspicious start thanks to disappointing results at four major banks