‘Revenue surprise’—Corporate America ended 2019 with a bang

February 20, 2020, 10:05 AM UTC

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Good morning. If yesterday was a good day for the markets, today must be… Yep, it’s a downer. Or, at least mostly. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in a classic “W” cycle—up one day; down the next.

Here’s what’s moving markets today: Fed minutes, coronavirus, and its fallout into boardrooms and hospitals beyond China.

Markets update

The Asian and European markets are mixed, but more down than up. The U.S. futures, meanwhile, are edging down, as I type. The same can be said for crude and gold. The dollar, meanwhile, continues its surge upward.

The Fed minutes came out yesterday and coronavirus featured prominently. The outbreak is not yet seen as a full-on threat to global growth, but it’s being monitored as if it soon will be. The concern is it will also put the squeeze on already-low inflation.

The coronavirus situation itself offers a mixed picture today. There’s some good—if not confusing—data coming out of China. The number of infections overnight dropped considerably. A big reason for that: China again changed its counting methodology. And now the world is dealing with a new issue: the death toll is climbing abroad.

Meanwhile, more industry sectors warn the contagion is putting a crimp on business. This morning, Air France-KLM and Qantas both reported coronavirus-related profit warnings as has Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company. “There is still a lot of uncertainties out there,” Maersk CEO Soren Skou told Bloomberg Television this morning.

Until we get a bit of clarity on this contagion, expect this “W” cycle to continue.

Earnings report card

Let’s move away from pandemics to profits. I got a timely note yesterday evening from John Lynch, Chief Investment Strategist for LPL Financial, who did a deep dive into the latest batch of earnings coming out of S&P 500 companies.

We’re not quite done with the results season, but it’s still worth taking a close look at the health of Corporate America.

LPL’s Lynch sees a lot of promise in the numbers. There’s been healthy revenue growth in the December quarter, and profits came in mostly above expectations.

Let’s start with their top-line assessment:

Solid revenue upside. A solid 65% of S&P 500 Index companies have beaten revenue estimates, the highest level since second quarter 2018 and well above the long-term average at 57%. S&P 500 companies have produced a larger-than-normal nearly one percentage point positive revenue surprise and are tracking to a 3.5% top-line increase.

The “revenue surprise” is particularly impressive as companies are dealing with a number of challenges including slowing global economic growth, a strong dollar, a downturn in manufacturing and reduced capital investment.

The bottom line looks even better. Lynch points out:

The earnings beat rate at 71% is slightly above the 10-year average (70%). S&P 500 earnings growth has surprised by a solid 4.4% so far despite economic, currency, and commodity headwinds.


On earnings calls over the past month, quarterly results have taken a back seat to 2020 outlooks. That makes sense. Investors and analysts want to know what to expect in the weeks and quarters to come as the coronavirus stifles travel, disrupts supply chains and shutters factories in the world’s second biggest economy.

Judging by LPL’s number-crunching, 2019 ended on a surprisingly strong note. And we shouldn’t lose light of that.

There was certainly momentum coming into the new year, as their analysis shows. No wonder investors are so conflicted about 2020.

We’ll see you right back here tomorrow. Have a good day.

Bernhard Warner

Today's reads

Cutting the cord. Speaking of W-like share performances... Roku's latest results have reignited a debate about the company's future. Is the streaming platform doomed to be overrun by bigger, more diversified tech players? Or can it make the leap beyond the commodification of its boxes and embedded interface to expand into more profitable businesses of online services and digital advertising?, asks Fortune’s Aaron Pressman.

All that glitters. As we discussed yesterday, the price of gold has surged by around 6% so far this year, playing its traditional role as a safe haven amid the stormy seas of the coronavirus outbreak. The precious metal traded near a seven-year high on concern that the health crisis will retard global growth, coupled with speculation the Federal Reserve will ease monetary policy before the year-end. Palladium has been even more impressive, holding near a record after building on a powerful rally.

Swiss surprise. Switzerland’s largest bank, UBS, unveiled a surprise change at the top. Ralph Hamers, boss of Dutch bank ING, will replace Sergio Ermotti as chief executive of UBS, the world’s largest wealth manager with $2.6 trillion of assets. Hamers will take over on Nov. 1 from Ermotti, who has spent almost nine years turning around the Swiss lender after it was bailed out during the financial crisis, the Financial Times reports.

Market candy

Quote of the day. "Corporate leaders these days are fat, sloppy and not as aggressive as they used to be.” That’s legendary investor Jeremy Grantham’s crushing verdict on today’s bosses for failing to take the big, daring bets—especially in what he sees as the green economy. The money manager tells Fortune’s Shawn Tully that while CEOs should be deploying their own R&D to find new game-changing products and technologies, "They're afraid of painful write-offs. They wait to see if someone else succeeds, then come around in Round C or Round D of venture funding."

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