Rightly or wrongly, a bevy of companies are likely to blame weak fourth quarter earnings on the government shutdown and the debt ceiling debate.
In third quarter earnings commentary and guidance, several companies in a wide swath of industries have outright warned that the D.C. situation would impact fourth quarter earnings, or at least remarked that it added a measure of uncertainty. And some, such as Stanley Black & Decker and Linear Technology, have lowered their fourth quarter guidance, partially as a result of what happened in Washington.
Companies are "setting the table," said FactSet senior earnings analyst John Butters. Bringing up the government's potential impact now allows management to say "Look, we pointed this out as a potential concern early in the quarter, and now it's happening."
Only a few companies have blamed third quarter weakness on Washington, and with good reason—the shutdown started on Oct. 1, just after the quarter ended.
But after Citigroup missed earnings expectations, CEO Mike Corbat included the D.C. situation on a laundry list of problems, saying on the earnings call that "our results reflect a challenging operating environment, including the slowdown in client activity based on uncertainty regarding Fed tapering, concerns about the effect of a U.S. government shutdown, and forecasts for slowing economic growth, particularly in the emerging markets."
For many companies, "uncertainty" has been the key word.
On Family Dollar's October earnings call, CEO Howard Levine said: "The way I think about these kind of things is, it's just not a help to consumer confidence. The threat of the shutdown, the uncertainty regarding some of the government assistance … the uncertainty around job growth are very real to our consumer every day."
Similarly, on homebuilder Lennar's late September earnings call, CEO Stuart Miller remarked: "There have been, and still are, economic and political uncertainties ahead that will affect and bring questions to the futures of housing. The pending debt ceiling debate, the future of the taper discussion and the international swirl around Syria and the Middle East will all produce bumps in the housing recovery road."
Wells Fargo CFO Timothy Sloan struck a similar tone on the bank's earnings call: "I would say it's a little bit too soon to gauge the impact as to ... how consumers and our commercial customers are going to react to what's going on or not going on in Washington."
The table, then, has been set. And if any of these companies—or the many others that are likely to bring up D.C. uncertainty in their own upcoming earnings commentary—come up short in the fourth quarter, investors and analysts should expect to hear even more about "D.C. drag" on the next conference call.