Markets

Companies are warning that earnings results are going to be brutal

Key Points
  • With earnings season looming, 77% of companies issuing pre-announcements say their profit picture will be worse than Wall Street is expecting.
  • That's the second-worst quarter on record going back to 2006, according to FactSet.
  • Two tariff-sensitive sectors, tech and health care, have seen the highest amounts of negative announcements.

Stocks may have brushed up against record highs Monday. However, a looming threat is just a couple weeks away once profit reports from the second quarter hit.

Analysts have been taking a dimmer view of what is ahead for earnings. They've already forecast a decline for the first three quarters of 2019. Now companies are echoing those concerns with a level of pessimism not often seen from corporate America.

Ahead of a season that starts in earnest the week of July 15, 77% of the 113 companies that have issued earnings per share guidance have warned that their numbers will be worse than what Wall Street analysts are estimating, according to FactSet.

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That total of 87 companies is well above the typical level of 70% negative pre-announcements and the second-worst level since FactSet started keeping track in 2006. The worst was in the first quarter of 2016, which saw 92 negative such warnings.

At a time when the Dow Jones Industrial Average of blue chip stocks is coming off its best June since 1938, a wobbly profit picture doesn't do much to instill confidence that such an aggressive rally can continue. Earnings for the S&P 500, which had its best June since 1955, are projected to decline 2.6% from the same period a year ago.

"The harsh reality is data is going to impact sentiment," said Michael Yoshikami, founder of Destination Wealth Management. "I don't think it's something that can be ignored. Even though markets are at all-time highs, the economy is definitely slowing."

The issues with earnings now are multi-pronged but tied mostly to tariffs and waning global growth.

In terms of sectors, the two with the biggest negative pre-announcements — information technology and health care — are at the center of the tariff battle between the U.S. and its global trading partners, particularly China.

At the industry level, semiconductors and equipment along with health-care equipment and supplies and life sciences tools and services have seen the highest number of negative pre-announcements.

Technology has been at the core of President Donald Trump's tariffs against $250 billion worth of Chinese goods. At the same time, his steel and aluminum duties are making a direct hit on the health-care industry, impacting about $1.8 billion worth of medical imports, according to Tara O'Neill Hayes, the deputy director of health-care policy for the American Action Forum.

The total tariff impact will cost the industry about $400 million, Hayes wrote in a recent report. In addition to tariffs, health care also faces a serious regulatory risk ahead, with leaders in both parties expressing interest in curbing the amount pharmaceutical companies can charge for their drugs.

Multinationals, in general, also are seeing a big tariff impact. FactSet estimates that companies doing more than half their sales outside the U.S. are looking at a more than 9% earnings decline on a year-over-year basis.

Determining the market impact is difficult, but the downbeat sentiment from companies will give investors plenty to think about as Wall Street tries to build on a Dow gain this year of 14.4%.

"Stocks are priced for perfection. You haven't seen too much suffering yet, but it's kind of incipient. It's creeping into the numbers little by little," said Mitchell Goldberg, president of ClientFirst Strategy. "When stocks are priced for perfection, even little things become insurmountable."

One major attribute the market has going for it is that even at a slower pace, the U.S. is still outgrowing the rest of the world. However, mounting headwinds could send investors further into safe haven assets like bonds and gold, which have benefited during the intensifying U.S-China trade dispute.

"If you're worried about earnings, you should be taking some chips off the table," Goldberg said. "We've had a real nice rally this year. I wouldn't be surprised if we had a pullback."