Has the US stock market disconnected from the real economy? Part 2

In the previous post, I examined the relationship between the economy and corporate earnings and showed that we should be sceptical about the numbers reported by companies as “earnings”. Profits, as measured by the national accounts data, not only suggest profits might be 30% lower than companies represent them to be but that they have also been declining for the past few years, rather than ever rising to record highs in the earnings series.

In this post, I will leave aside scepticism on historic reported earnings, and instead examine the impact of the recession on earnings and what we should make of current earnings forecasts. The chart below shows GAAP earnings as a percentage of sales, including the current forecasts to 2021.

Looking at the last two recessions, we see what we would normally expect. Profits and profitability hit hard, taking about 4 years to return to the levels before the recession. The depth of these earnings recessions corresponds to the depth of the economic recessions, with 2008 being much deeper than the recession of 2001.

If we look at the current recession, the market professionals who forecast earnings and the economy are expecting a completely different outcome. Despite this economic recession being far deeper than that of 2008, in fact the deepest since the Great Depression of a century ago, earnings are not expected to fall far. In addition, they are not just expected to quickly recover to the historic average of around 8%, but back up record high levels of profitability of over 10% before the end of 2021.

Have US companies disconnected from the real economy?

The chart above suggests that the drop in profits so far is entirely consistent with what we would expect in a recession. However the forecasts for profits to return to previous highs within 2 years do not tie up with examining previous recessions. These suggest a much longer recovery of 4 years but also that the current fall in profits may not be over.

Has the US stock market disconnected from the real economy? Part 1

The first thing is to look at the relationship between corporate revenues and the broader economy and to see if it has altered over time. In the following chart, I look at the ratio of:

  • Aggregated sales for the S&P 500 (Sales)
  • Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) from the GDP data


The relationship has not changed in the past 20 years. Revenues of US companies look tied to the spending of the US consumer in exactly the way we would expect. Further, this relationship is why we can look to the performance of the broader economy to predict the overall financial performance of companies.

How about profits/earnings?

The next step is to look at the relationship between corporate sales and corporate profits or earnings. This becomes far murkier, mainly relating to deciding which data you trust on what corporate earnings actually are.

The first issue is to choose which of the many earnings that companies report to use.
Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) are a uniform set of accounting and reporting standards to which US companies are required to produce accounts complying to.
You may imagine these would be the earnings that people refer to when calculating the PE ratio (price/earnings) for example, but strangely instead the most commonly talked about earnings are where they “correct” the GAAP for temporary “non-recurring” items. Funnily enough this measure, normally called operating earnings (Op earnings) is always higher than GAAP, with this difference growing to over $20 i.e. over 15% of reported earnings. Here I chart the difference:

GAAP would be clearly a better number to use, as it reduces the discretion allowed to companies to massage their numbers to make them look better to investors. The chart above strongly suggests that at least some of the recent exuberance in the growth of profits is pure cheerleading and manipulation of earnings data. I will further strengthen this argument below.

How do corporate profits relate to the real economy?

The big story of the rising stock market of the past few years has been rising earnings, amid a large rise in the profitability is US companies. Here I look at GAAP earnings versus the Sales series from the first chart.

If we ignore the recessions which play havoc with profits, during the previous good years of 2003-2007 profits averaged around 8% of sales. This was also true from 2010 to 2016. But in the past 3 years we have seen a rise to record levels of profitability. Here I’m even using GAAP earnings which are far lower and more conservative than the operating earnings companies prefer to talk about.

Did this really happen?

There is another way to measure corporate profits which is via the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) data, which is the data used in compiliing GDP and looks at the numbers reported by companies in their tax filings. GAAP data has the advantage in that we have it for each company, whilst NIPA data is only reported for the US economy as a whole. The advantage of NIPA data is that it provides much even less discretion to the companies in how they calculate it and so is far less susceptible to manipulation or “optimisation”.

If we redo the previous chart and instead look at the NIPA measure of profits against sales, then the picture of the past decade tells a very different story.

We can see that in good times, profits are in a tight range against sales which makes sense. In recessions (2001 & 2008) profits nearly halved before recovering again. Currently we are observing a drop in profits, which is the usual behaviour before a recession, the opposite to the previous chart which showed an acceleration in GAAP earnings versus sales. The following chart shows it even more clearly.

My real concern with this story of rising corporate profitability is that earnings data reported by companies seems out of line with not only sales but also NIPA data, both of which seem to have much less flexibility in reporting compared to GAAP.

Has this ever happened before?

Yes but it’s a more recent phenomenon. NIPA and GAAP earnings up until the mid-80s had a correlation of 0.9. Since then as GAAP rules have changed, they diverged in the same way in the previous two economic cycles.

The chart above shows a profit cycle which is broadly the same as the economic cycle. In white NIPA profitsover PCE (our GDP proxy as before), in yellow GAAP earnings over PCE.

Profits rise in boom times and do extremely poorly in recessions. The striking difference is that the NIPA earnings are a leading indicator of economic recessions, and GAAP earnings are a lagging indicator. This means clear divergence in the 2 measures cycle peaks, the circles drawn.

In the first green circle, we can see NIPA profits peaking in 1997 whilst GAAP earnings continued to rise until 2000. This was the dot com bubble and we discovered that the euphoria built upon ever rising profits believed to be due to the tech revolution was fundamentally misplaced.

In the second green circle, we see the same thing happening before the Financial crisis. NIPA profits peaked in 2006, but the wonderful results posted by financial firms continued well into 2007, before being exposed as completely fabricated.

Note that these profits reported in 2000 and 2007 were not lies. They were in line with GAAP reporting standards. It is just that late in the cycle, firms get quite good at making sure their earnings numbers keep rising. As I mentioned GAAP reporting leaves a lot more discretion than NIPA.

More recently we saw a small earnings recession in 2014/15 in both the NIPA and GAAP numbers. Since 2016, this is where we have seen the divergence, shown in the red circle. The NIPA data shows a typical late cycle deterioration in profit margins. The GAAP data shows a surge to record levels of profitability and the current set of forecasts expect us to reach even greater heights as early as next year.

Have US companies disconnected from the real economy?

It is clear from NIPA data and sales data that corporations are behaving entirely normally late in the cycle amid falling profit margins. It is clear from all the earnings numbers produced by companies themselves that corporations are still exuberant, having an entirely different relationship with the economy with earnings growing far more rapidly than their sales.

Stock market pricing has risen far more rapidly than the broader economy in the past few years. This seems to fully believe these reported earnings which is why it looks so disconnected from the underlying economy.

How is the US economy coping with the pandemic?

Coverage of the economy can often be very confusing, but at the moment it is the worst I can remember. Many numbers are quoted which are very dramatic but extremely hard to understand or piece together into a consistent overall picture of what is happening. We hear that the last quarter was the worst since World War 2, yet the stock market is soaring higher. Focusing on the US, let’s look at just the key elements.

Consumer spending fell

Consumer spending has been the huge driver of the fall in the economy. The headline number is a drop of 35% which sounds very dramatic. Whilst it is large, it is important to note that the US reports annualised numbers which makes it seem even bigger. i.e. the actual fall in consumer spending during the quarter was around 9%, but the number is reported assuming a fall of 9% every quarter which takes it to a fall of 35% over the whole year. If you think this is confusing, I agree with you. To simplify, let’s look in $ terms:

  • US GDP is ~$21trn per year (which is $21,000 billion)
  • This is $5,250bn per quarter
  • 70% is consumer spending so $3,675bn (i.e. by far the largest part)
  • Consumer spending dropped by $382bn which is over 10%!

What elements of spending fell?

Spending on goods did not fall. We can see this in the recent retail sales numbers. Despite shops not being open, people have been buying as many goods as they did before, which is why this has been a good time for online retailers like Amazon and firms selling goods such as Apple.

The fall in spending came entirely from a collapse in services spending, which is twice as large a component as goods and so much more important for the economy.

Did spending fall because income fell?

This would make sense but is not in fact true. Personal income rose significantly during the quarter.

How did incomes rise during a crisis?

This is surprising but it was from the size of government benefits and transfers.

Income from pay fell by $260bn but benefits (e.g. $600 extra per week in unemployment benefits) and transfers (e.g. $1200 stimulus checks) more than made up for it. In fact, total benefits and transfers were $600bn so incomes ROSE by $340bn.

These numbers are already significant, but even they understate the amount of government support in the past few months. Another program called the Payment Protection Program, the PPP, has given out over $500bn to businesses, nominally in the form of loans but in practice they do not have to be paid back (i.e. they are grants or gifts.)

The total rise in incomes is best seen as the total of these programs i.e. $340+$510 = $850bn

If we include other effects such as lots of tax payments being deferred then the extra amount of money in the bank accounts of Americans is over $1,000bn.

Income up and spending down

We have seen an extra $1,000bn in the bank accounts of Americans. The excitement of the stock market from seeing big tech profits of $28bn in the quarter should be thought of in that context.

The fall in spending of almost $400bn cannot be blamed on a drop in income.

What happens next?

A pessimistic view is that the drop in spending on services is directly due to fear of the virus and so does not recover until the virus is under control. From comparing US states, and looking at Sweden against its neighbours, we have seen a similar drop in spending on services whether they were in lockdown or not.

An optimistic view would be that the pandemic is over and everything will go back to normal. I think it is clear this is not what is happening in the US.

Another optimistic view is that Americans will have saved $600bn this quarter and can spend it now. This is a possibility, but it is perhaps more likely that the extra savings we have seen are due to extremely poor targeting of the transfers which have gone to more affluent business owners whose spending will not be impacted. Kanye West apparently received over $2m and I am not sure this is going to drive his future spending patterns.

A more pessimistic view is that the current quarter will likely not have nearly the same amount of stimulus, so we may see a far worse outcome. In addition to changes in behaviour due to avoiding the virus we will have a large drop in income to drive spending lower.

US Covid Update

In my last post, I said that if Covid was progressing as before in the US, then the rise in cases would lead to a rise in deaths with a lag of 2 weeks or so. This would mean that we would see daily deaths in Florida, Texas and Arizona combined double to around 400 before the end of the month.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened.

This means that hoping it will just go away is not effective as a public health or economic strategy.