By JACK HOUGH
Over the past three years, corporate profits underlying the S&P 500 index have rebounded from a negative number to a record sum. Soaring profits, in turn, have helped to justify a quick rise in stock prices. But profits for the current quarter are expected to increase just 5.8% from a year ago.
That's slow by a variety of measures. Six months ago Wall Street was forecasting more than twice as much growth for this quarter. The compounded average growth rate of the past two decades is over 11%. During the same quarter a year ago, the growth rate was 16%.
The slowdown is more a return to normalcy than a stumble. U.S. companies have turned record percentages of their sales into profits during the recovery, partly because they have held off on costly hiring for as long as possible, and partly because they have enjoyed booming demand in overseas markets, notably China.
But China's government on Monday cut its target for this year's economic growth to 7.5%--more than double the U.S. rate, but China's slowest rate in eight years. And in January, America added more jobs than during any January since the housing bubble. (Numbers for February are due out Friday.) Jobs growth is fine news, but it suggests U.S. companies have already tapped the easiest sources of profit gains.
Investors, then, should lower their return expectations for stocks, which after Tuesday's market plunge sell for almost precisely their average historical price relative to trailing earnings. They can also seek out companies that are bucking the earnings slowdown. Below are listed a handful that turned up on a recent screen for companies with rising earnings estimates for the current quarter and current fiscal year as well as a record of topping earnings estimates in their most recent three quarterly reports.
- 2012 EPS forecast up 10% in three months
Lincoln Electric (LECO)
- 2012 EPS forecast up 13% in three months
On Assignment (ASGN)
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
- 2012 EPS forecast up 5% in one month
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (RRGB)