More U.S. companies are exceeding sales forecasts than any time in four years, helping extend the biggest stock-market rally since 1936.
Caterpillar Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc., barometers for the economy because of their building and delivery businesses, are among the 71 percent of Standard & Poor’s 500 Index companies that reported more revenue last quarter than analysts estimated, the largest proportion since at least 2006, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Sales beat projections by an average 2.2 percent, the most in two years, the data show.
While U.S. earnings have surpassed Wall Street estimates for seven straight quarters, sales have trailed forecasts on average since 2008, as the U.S. ended its worst recession in seven decades and employers cut as many as 8.75 million workers. Bank of America Corp. and Penn Capital Management say unexpected revenue growth shows the economy is expanding enough that companies can stop firing people and closing plants.
“You really did need top-line growth because the cost-cutting got to where you couldn’t cut any more,” said Eric Green, a money manager at Penn Capital Management in Philadelphia, which oversees $5.6 billion. “But you’re seeing it now. Many companies are having that nice top-line growth, and as that goes up, it should have a magnified effect on earnings. It’s very positive for the equity markets.”
Strengthening global economic growth and higher-than-estimated earnings have pushed the S&P 500 up 29 percent since July 2, its 2010 low. The index topped 1,300 on Feb. 1, a 31-month high, after reports showed U.S. manufacturing accelerated at the fastest pace since May 2004 last month and consumer spending exceeded forecasts.
The S&P 500 rose 0.6 percent at 4 p.m. in New York as takeover announcements bolstered investor optimism. The Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced for the sixth straight day, the longest streak since November.
Stocks gained last week, sending the S&P 500 up 2.7 percent to 1,310.87 as the U.S. unemployment rate slipped to 9 percent, the lowest level since April 2009. Companies added 36,000 workers in January, the fewest in four months, as winter storms kept job seekers at home. The S&P 500 has surged 94 percent since March 2009, the biggest advance for a comparable period since 1936, according to Howard Silverblatt, an index analyst for S&P in New York.
Worst Since 1930s
Total revenue for S&P 500 companies may rise 7.5 percent this year, the most since 2007, to an all-time high of $1,017.44 a share, according to analyst estimates compiled through Feb. 6 by Bloomberg. Sales fell 13 percent between November 2008 and October 2009 as the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s forced businesses and consumers to cut back on spending.
“The market has been saying with a pretty clear signal since the August lows that double-dip fears were misplaced, that we were set to see a reacceleration in economic activity in 2011, and I think all of that is true,” said Scott Migliori, the San Francisco-based U.S. chief investment officer at RCM, a unit of Allianz Global Investors that oversees more than $145 billion. “The market has already told us that the economy is going to grow pretty robustly in 2011.”
David Bianco, the chief U.S. equity strategist at Bank of America, says faster-than-estimated sales means corporate expense reductions aimed at propping up earnings may be ending, with demand for goods and services increasing.
Since the start of the third quarter of 2008, when Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, sales for S&P 500 companies have missed estimates by an average of 0.1 percent, while earnings have surpassed forecasts by 2.9 percent, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The fourth quarter was the first time since 2008 that the average sales surprise reached 2 percent, the data show.
“Fourth-quarter results are coming in strong on all measures,” Bianco, who estimates the S&P 500 will climb to 1,400 by the end of the year, wrote in a Jan. 31 report. “Better-than-expected sales growth means earnings growth is being driven not by cost-cutting, but by improving demand.”
The sales recovery may spur hiring, Migliori said. The world’s largest economy will grow 3.1 percent in 2011 and 3.2 percent in 2012, the most over two years since 2004 and 2005, according to the median estimates of more than 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.
“Sales tends to be highly correlated to economic activity,” said Greg Woodard, a strategist at Manning & Napier in Fairport, New York, which manages about $36 billion. “Growing revenue is very important for companies. You’re starting to see that transition away from cost-cutting on the quarterly reports, and we’re starting to see the very early signs of hiring, and that’s a positive signal.”
Caterpillar, the world’s largest maker of construction equipment, said it added about 19,000 jobs last year, including a 15 percent increase in the U.S. The Peoria, Illinois-based company beat analysts’ projections for fourth-quarter sales by 11 percent, the most since 2008. The shares gained 64 percent last year and closed at an all-time high of $100.47 today.
“We’ve become somewhat more positive about economic growth in the developed economies,” Mike DeWalt, Caterpillar’s director of investor relations, said during a Jan. 27 call with analysts. “2010 was the first year of sustained recovery from a tough year in 2009. 2011 looks better, and we’re expecting record profits.”
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said last month that the decline in the unemployment rate is likely to be slow even with a pickup in U.S. growth in 2011, adding that “it could take four to five more years for the job market to normalize fully.”
The S&P 500 has climbed 26 percent since Bernanke indicated in August that he would buy Treasuries to boost the economy. The rally sent 82 percent of U.S. companies’ shares above their 200-day average on Jan. 18, the most since April 15, according to New York Stock Exchange data compiled by Bloomberg. When that happened in April, the index began a 16 percent decline.
Greenwood Capital Associates’ Walter Todd says the stock market may retreat because operating margins have climbed so high it suggests companies have few expenses left to cut. Even with sales beating estimates, profitability may narrow, slowing earnings growth, he said.
The S&P 500’s operating margin had its biggest annual increase in eight years during 2010 as executives reduced jobs and U.S. worker productivity increased by 3.6 percent, the most since 2002, Labor Department data show. Operating margins reached 19.8 percent on average in November, the highest level since 2007. Excluding financial companies, the 2010 margin exceeded the 2006 peak, according to Bank of America’s Bianco.
“Looking at individual reports, you start to see the margins problem arise, and that creates problems,” said Todd, who helps manage about $900 million. “That sets up the opportunity for a pullback.”
Industrial shares in the S&P 500 including Caterpillar have collectively gained 37 percent since July 2 for the third-biggest gain among the index’s 10 main industries, behind energy and material stocks.
The Institute for Supply Management’s factory index rose to 60.8 in January, the highest level since May 2004, according to a Feb. 1 report from the Tempe, Arizona-based group. That exceeded the most optimistic forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of economists. Readings greater than 50 signal growth.
General Motors Co., the automaker that emerged from bankruptcy in July 2009, said on Feb. 1 that U.S. sales last month rose 22 percent, more than analysts estimated. The Detroit-based company plans to add a third shift and about 750 jobs to its assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, to meet rising demand for pickups “because we’ve been encouraged by the uptick in housing starts and construction projects across Michigan and across the country,” Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, told reporters and workers at the plant on Jan. 24.
The shares have climbed 11 percent since GM’s initial public offering on Nov. 17.
“You’re definitely going to see an increase in hiring in almost every industry this year,” said Green, who expects the unemployment rate to fall to about 7 percent by the end of the year. “Usually after a recession and difficult times, it takes a period of adjustment, cost-cutting and cash-hoarding. As demand goes up, you need to have employees working.”
UPS shares rallied to $74.59 on Feb. 1, the highest price since April 2008, after the world’s largest package-delivery company said adjusted profit jumped 44 percent to $1.08 a share in the fourth quarter and sales climbed 8.4 percent to $13.4 billion, both topping analysts’ forecasts. The Atlanta-based company cited more online shopping during the holidays.
U.S. consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, increased at a higher-than-forecast rate of 0.7 percent in December, Commerce Department data showed on Jan. 31. Gross domestic product rose at a 3.2 percent annual rate in the last three months of 2010, bringing the volume of all goods and services produced to $13.38 trillion and surpassing the pre-recession peak reached in the fourth quarter of 2007.
At Google Inc., the owner of the world’s most popular search engine, executives are preparing for the biggest year of employee growth in the company’s history. Google, which plans to hire at least 6,000 people, posted revenue that beat forecasts by 5.1 percent on Jan. 21, Bloomberg data show. The company got more than 75,000 applications in the last week of January, a record, spokesman Aaron Zamost said on Feb. 3.
DuPont, the biggest U.S. chemical maker by stock-market value, raised its 2011 profit forecast on Jan. 25 and reported higher-than-estimated earnings and sales. Shares of the Wilmington, Delaware-based company have risen 6.9 percent this year as Chief Executive Officer Ellen Kullman invests in industrial enzymes, solar energy and modified seeds.
“As the global economy recovers, we drove volume and price up in all major regions of the world,” Nicholas Fanandakis, the chief financial officer of DuPont, said in an earnings conference call on Jan. 25. “If this was a video conference, you’d see me sitting here with all smiles.”