Earnings Watch: Will Consumer Staples Keep Beating Expectations?

Earnings this week pretty much confirmed what investors already knew — the global economy is weak and consumers are hesitant. Consumer staples companies, however, have been consistently beating earnings estimates so far this earnings season. With some big names on tap this week, the question is: will the trend continue?

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Reports from all types of consumer companies, from McDonald’s and Starbucks to Apple — which posted a rare quarterly earnings miss — have suggested that the global consumer is pulling back as economic uncertainty continues to grind on. (See also: Why We Bought More Apple: Expert).

Economic data tell the same story: U.S.gross domestic product grewat a tepid 1.5 percent annual rate in the second quarter, the weakest pace of growth since the third quarter of last year.

U.S. multinationals are also facing headwinds from the stronger U.S. dollar.

So far, 290 of the S&P 500 firms have reported results, with 67 percent beating earnings expectations and 22 percent posting below forecasts. When it comes to revenue, however, 60 percent of companies missed revenue estimates, according to data from Thomson Reuters.

In a sign that the revenue weakness may persist, UPS , which ships a range of goods to consumers and businesses alike, slashed its full-year forecast and said customers are more concernedabout the economy in the second half of the year.

"Increasing uncertainty in the United States, continuing weakness in Asia exports and the debt crisis in Europe are impacting projections of economic expansion," UPS Chief Executive Scott Davis said in a statement Tuesday.

Third-quarter earnings of Standard & Poor's 500 companies are now expected to fall 0.1 percent from a year ago, a sharp revision from the July 1 forecast of 3.1 percent growth, Thomson Reuters datashowed. That would be the first drop in earnings since the third quarter of 2009.

The bright spot remains corporate margins, however.

Alliance Bernstein’s chief markets strategist, Vadim Zlotnikov, told CNBCon Wednesday, “The biggest fear is that profit margins will decline to their historical levels. As long as we can avoid that, the market will stay in a trading range.”

A number of consumer staples companies are among the big reporters next week. Anheuser-Busch Inbev reports Tuesday; Avon is out Wednesday; Clorox, Kellogg and Kraft report on Thursday and Procter & Gamble reports on Friday.

Of the 20 S&P consumer staples companies that have reported earnings so far this quarter, 80 percent beat EPS estimates. That’s the third highest rate after utilities and industrials.

Insurers including Prudential Financial, MetLife, Allstate and the Hartford will be reporting results next week, as will media giants Time Warner, CBS and Viacom.


A complete earnings calendar can be found here.

Brian Belski, chief investment strategist at BMO Capital Markets, told CNBC, that while EPS estimates have come down pretty substantially over the past two months, “the amount of cash flow coming from net income over the past three quarters has increased dramatically.”

That means earnings growth is no longer just about cost cutting, it’s about operations beginning to turn, he added. “That’s something a lot of people are missing.”