When the U.S. presidential election is finally over, what will companies use to justify weak business results?
Whether they're making steel rods or TV shows or selling mattresses or chicken dinners, companies have lately been blaming poor results on the election. Over the past 90 days, the "E" word or some variation of it (i.e. "political uncertainty") was mentioned in more than 500 earnings calls, according to a Bloomberg transcript search. It has even turned up more often than the weather, that perennial corporate excuse for poor performance.
This is not the typical pattern. Over the past five years, weather has appeared in more than 29,000 earnings call transcripts, compared with about 23,000 mentions of politics or elections.
In many industries -- including restaurants, retail, and the media -- the election seems like a convenient excuse to avoid talking about broader unfavorable trends. Indeed, blaming the political fracas is a powerful tool for companies, as it implies a recovery is on the horizon, giving investors hope. In many cases, that hope may not be warranted.
Take NFL ratings. The football league blamed recently declining TV viewership on "unprecedented interest" in the election, among other things.
What really seems to be hurting ratings, though, is that live sports seem finally to be succumbing to a dramatic consumer shift away from real-time television viewing. Average ratings for the new season are 14 percent lower than a year ago -- some of the worst viewership numbers in decades, according to Nielsen.
Likewise, BJ's Restaurants CEO Gregory Trojan told investors earlier this month the election has hurt sales at the pizza and beer joint, and he's hoping customers get into "a more normal rhythm and mindset" after November 8.
That's wishful thinking. Restaurant sales across the industry have been declining for months, and all signs point to a deepening of a restaurant recession, not the other way around.
As for retailers, they too have recently made the election their favorite explanation for weak sales. Customers are apparently too focused on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to buy North Face jackets, new mattresses and many more goods.
The more likely problem for, say, North Face maker V.F. Corp. -- which on Monday partly blamed the election for weak quarterly sales -- is that 80 percent of its sales come from department stores and other wholesale channels. As shoppers avoid those stores and shop instead on Amazon or at off-price stores such as T.J. Maxx, V.F.'s sales woes are unlikely to abate anytime soon.
There is one thing most Americans can agree on: November 8 and the end of the presidential race can't come soon enough. Just don't count on it suddenly making sales great again.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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