Better than expected, barely good enough: Profits and stocks

Here’s how much hope and expectation has been built into the stock market: Big companies are healthy and making fatter profits than Wall Street expected, yet it’s barely enough to keep the market from falling.

Consider Home Depot, which gave an earnings report on Tuesday that was seemingly fantastic. The retailer made more in profit from May through July than any other quarter in its history, and its 14 percent rise in earnings per share was stronger than analysts expected. Home Depot at the same time raised its profit forecast for this year and reported higher revenue than Wall Street forecast, all of which should be kibble for investors ravenously looking for growth. Even still, Home Depot’s stock slid 2.7 percent after the report.

That reaction hasn’t been too far off the norm recently, as companies have lined up to report how much they earned during the spring. Companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index are on pace to report one of their strongest quarters in years. Earnings per share were likely up more than 10 percent from a year earlier, better than the 7 percent that analysts had penciled in when the quarter ended, according to FactSet. Despite those gains, S&P 500 index funds are nearly exactly where they were before the heart of earnings reporting season began in mid-July.

“Equity markets have greeted positive earnings reports largely with indifference,” strategists at BlackRock wrote in a recent report. “Investor sentiment shows more signs of fatigue than euphoria, even as stock markets have repeatedly reached new heights this year.”

Usually, when a company reports better earnings than analysts expected, it sends the stock higher, at least for a day. Since 2006, such companies have typically done 1.14 percentage points better than the S&P 500 the day following its release, according to Goldman Sachs. But through mid-August of this reporting season, the performance edge has been virtually nil at 0.03 percentage points. That’s the lowest level in at least a decade.

When a company has reported better-than-expected earnings but fallen short of forecasts for revenue, its stock has tended to do worse than the rest of the S&P 500, according to BlackRock. And when a company has missed on both measures? Much worse.

At first blush, such a reaction may be surprising. Stock prices can move up and down for many reasons in the short term: whatever the president is tweeting about, what central banks in far-flung corners of the world are doing or the latest change some hedge fund has made to its trading algorithm. But over the long term, stock prices tend to track closely with corporate profits. When companies are making more money, investors are willing to pay more for each of their shares.

This time may be different because stock prices already had climbed so much in anticipation of higher profits ahead. Even when profits were falling early last year, the S&P 500 index was still holding steady or rising.

One of the main ways analysts use to measure whether stocks are expensive is to compare their price to corporate profits. The S&P 500 is now trading at 20.7 times how much its companies have earned over the last 12 months, according to FactSet. That’s more expensive than its median price-earnings ratio of 15.6 over the last decade.

Now that strong profit growth has returned, it may be mere validation for the gains S&P 500 index funds have already made. And if corporate profits continue to rise faster than stock prices, they’ll look less expensive.

With the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, many analysts expect the market’s price-earnings ratio to creep lower from its lofty heights. At the least, many are telling investors to expect the stock market to rise no faster than corporate earnings.

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