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‘Not that bad’: Earnings season kicks off with the S&P 500 rising 3%

April 14, 2020, 9:54 PM UTC

Earnings season kicked off amid a tumultuous coronavirus news backdrop on Tuesday—but markets seemed somewhat pleasantly surprised by the numbers.

Markets have been on an optimistic streak as of late, with the Dow and S&P 500 rallying over 20% in recent weeks, closing 2.4% and 3% higher on Tuesday, respectively. Among the news buoying markets? An initial slew of “not that bad” earnings reports, according to Brad McMillan, CIO for Commonwealth Financial Network.

Johnson & Johnson jumped over 4% to close at better-than-expected earnings, while other names like JPMorgan Chase, albeit taking a beating on profits, showed resilient revenue growth (and even posted record trading revenues, up 32% from the year prior). New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that coronavirus-related deaths in the state are leveling off—a key sign investors have been watching for guidance.

Earnings-wise, Randy Frederick, the vice president of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab, thinks since guidance has been so unreliable (and, in some cases, withdrawn), “that sets up a lot of these companies for big price moves, either up or down.” He’s expecting big swings in names that have either benefitted from the virus, or been crushed because of it, Frederick notes.

But for those like McMillan, this earnings season “is kind of the calm before the storm,” he tells Fortune. “Earnings haven’t come in as badly as expected, there’s something for the bulls to look at, there’s something for the bears to say, ‘okay it’s not that bad,’ but the reality is, this is all backwards-looking.”

Take Q1 earnings with a grain of salt

For some standout companies like Johnson & Johnson, Q1 earnings meant a nice stock pop during the day. But analysts largely agree that earnings this time around aren’t business as usual.

Typically, after roughly a quarter of the companies report for any given earnings season, markets will “have a pretty good feel for how that season is going to play out. But this is not a normal season,” Frederick tells Fortune. In fact, he suggests earnings are going to be a lot more company-specific than normal (“we can’t count on the earnings season in general to be either positive or negative for the market”).

For McMillan, investors likely won’t be able to have meaningful visibility into what earnings mean “at least for the next couple quarters.” In fact, for him, “Q1 earnings are going to reflect the pre-virus world, Q2 is going to reflect scorched earth.”

As investors track earnings this week, Frederick suggest they listen to earnings calls for any guidance from execs that can be useful.

The worst is yet to come

And it’s clear to experts that Q2 will hold the most grisly numbers.

Some firms are predicting over 30% plunges in GDP for Q2, and unemployment data is looking grim—with about 17 million Americans out of a job in the past three weeks alone, according to data.

Markets haven’t seemed too perturbed by the news (in fact, markets rose last Thursday when the latest jobless numbers came out). For Mark Hamrick, Bankrate.com’s senior economic analyst, that indicates that markets have been in “shock trauma mode.”

Yet forecasts for double-digit quarterly declines in GDP have been circulating for a while now, and Hamrick believes “investors broadly have assimilated dismal scenarios into their own expectations.” Yet, he points out, “we know that there’s still a long way to go both for the economy and the health crisis.”

And finding a new bottom is looking less and less likely coming off the over 20% pop markets have seen in recent weeks. In fact, while Frederick wouldn’t be surprised to see markets test a 2,400 level, he notes that “Every day that we go further and further from that low point, both in terms of the calendar and point-wise, the less likely it is we’ll go back down and test it.”

“The market doesn’t care about what’s happening today, the market is thinking about where are things going to be six months from now—Are we going to be in a better spot than we are now? And the market says, yeah, it thinks that we are,” according to Frederick.

To others less optimistic about the markets’ newfound confidence, like McMillan, “right now we’re in the relief rally from the initial pullback.” He notes we haven’t seen much of the impact from the job losses in confidence, in spending, or business investment yet. “So when the markets are saying, ‘okay we’re good,’ I’m saying, you don’t even know what’s coming.”

There are plenty more companies reporting earnings this week, and investors need to keep in mind: “If companies get crushed in Q1 from the virus issues, it’s likely things will get worse in Q2,” Frederick notes.

As for markets, Hamrick likens it to boxing: “It’s a little like investors have gotten up from the mat of the boxing ring having been nearly knocked out and realizing they can see again,” he says. “It’s within the context of having weathered significant body blows.”

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