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When an Earnings ‘Make’ Is Really a ‘Miss’

April 26, 2019, 6:14 PM UTC

Talk about managing expectations.

From the looks of it, corporate earnings surged in the first quarter.

So far, 77 percent of the 229 companies that reported have posted better-than-expected earnings result, according to data by Refinitiv published today.

Companies across industries–from Facebook Inc. to Starbucks Corp. to Inc.–posted results this week that beat estimates and gave investors confidence that the U.S. economy is in good shape. Taken together with today’s U.S. economic growth figure, which expanded at a faster pace in the quarter than expected, at a 3.2 percent annualized rate, it’s no wonder this week the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq touched record highs.

But scratch the surface, and it appears that many of those earnings surprises were a result of companies managing expectations down so far that beating them was almost a certainty. Though this is a game as old as Wall Street itself, it’s being played in earnest right now. Are these earnings wins, “because of the lower expectations or a result of a better environment for companies? That’s the question you have to ask,” said Chris Gaffney, president of world markets at TIAA Bank.

Many companies lowered expectations heading into 2019 after the stock market’s swoon in the fourth quarter and over fearful prospects of a global growth slowdown and higher U.S. interest rates. “The negative guidance and revisions were much more dramatic even though it’s such a normal occurrence,” said Gaffney. “There was a lot of pessimism and not a lot of optimism.” And dig deeper into a few companies that beat expectations, and the results themselves don’t look too rosy.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. earlier this month ‘beat’ estimates on earnings. But revenue dropped 13 percent to $8.81 billion, below analysts’ $8.9 billion estimate, according to CNBC. Comcast Corp. also surpassed Wall Street’s forecasts on earnings but posted revenue of $26.86 billion, lower than the $27.2 billion expected in a Refinitiv survey of analysts, CNBC said.

And even companies that cheerfully ‘beat’ estimates in the first quarter weren’t necessarily feeling too upbeat. In the first quarter, 79 companies in the S&P 500 issued negative guidance versus 71 in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to FactSet data. The five-year average is 74 companies. And in a pessimistic sign, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts’ research showed that mentions of “better” or “stronger” versus “worse” or “weaker” on company calls were tracking the lowest since the first quarter of 2016, and “mentions of optimism have waned.”

Still, investors seem to be heavily weighting any positive surprises. Overall, by the end of the first quarter, J.P. Morgan & Chase & Co. analysts wrote in a report that S&P 500 companies should post a 4 percent to 5 percent earnings surprise “on better than feared margins” and profit growth of 2 percent to 3 percent by the end of the reporting period.

It’s all about managing those expectations.