October 7, 2021

S&P 500 21Q3 Preview: All Eyes on Earnings Momentum

by Tajinder Dhillon and Thomas Alonso.

As we enter 21Q3 earnings season, market participants and analysts are noting the blistering pace of earnings growth and the record percentage of companies beating analyst expectations. The key question is, can this momentum be maintained?

The current 21Q3 earnings growth rate of 29.4% will certainly mark the beginning of a transition to more reasonable year-over-year (YoY) growth rates off the back of a historical 21Q1 and 21Q2 earnings season where YoY earnings growth was 52.8% and 96.3% respectively. This is shown in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1: S&P 500 YoY Growth Rates

Of the 17 companies that have reported thus far, 82.4% have beat analyst expectations, which is below the prior four quarter average of 84.7% but still well above the long-term average of 65.8%.  More interesting is that the magnitude of the beat as defined by the earnings surprise factor is only 5.2%, which is well below the prior-four quarter average of 18.3% and more in line with the long-term average surprise factor of 4.0%.

While it is still early into the reporting period, if the surprise factor remains around this level, we may likely see a muted improvement in earnings growth as the quarter progresses. This will be in sharp contrast to 21Q2 and 21Q3 where earnings growth dramatically improved throughout the quarter by 28.5 and 30.8 percentage points (ppts) respectively.

To this point, 21Q3 earnings growth expectations have remained flat over the last two months having changed from 29.7% on July 30th to 29.4% on Oct. 1, a 0.3 ppts decline as shown in Exhibit 2.  In a typical quarter, YoY growth expectations decline by an average of 3.3 percentage points (ppts) from the start of the quarter to the start of earnings season.

This is a sharp contrast from 20Q3-21Q2, where earnings growth improved heading into earnings season as analyst estimates had been overly pessimistic during the height of the pandemic.

Perhaps the change in behavior this quarter can be attributed to heightened reservation amongst analysts in excessively raising estimates, given the current headwinds of the delta variant, supply chain bottlenecks and rising inflation.

Exhibit 2: S&P 500 Growth Rate Change Heading into Earnings Season

High expectations for energy

Energy has seen the largest improvement in earnings growth rate since July 30, improving 38.5 ppts followed by Materials (8.1 ppts), and Information Technology (1.8 ppts).

Exhibit 3 highlights the 21Q3 earnings and revenue growth rates at an index and sector level. The Energy growth rate is currently 1,391.9%, which is the highest growth rate out of the 11 sectors and is expected to be the largest YoY growth rate for the sector since Refinitiv has tracked this data.

Exhibit 3: S&P 500 21Q3 Growth Rates

Source: S&P 500 Earnings Scorecard (Oct 1)

While the large growth rate in large part is due to a collapse in oil prices last year, the sector is still expected to deliver this quarter or we can expect a sharp reaction. From an earnings contribution perspective, the sector is currently forecasted to contribute 6.62 ppts towards the index growth rate of 29.4%, the largest of any sector.

This is followed by Information Technology (6.38 ppts) and Industrials (4.15 ppts). These three sectors alone are expected to contribute 17.2 ppt to the 29.4% 21Q3 earnings growth rate, which is over half of the expected contribution towards the overall index growth rate.

The Energy sector will be in the limelight for the next few quarters as well, as 21Q4 YoY earnings growth is currently forecasted at a remarkable 4,933.1% and 22Q1 YoY growth of 105.6% which again will both rank the sector with the highest growth rates.  This period will be reminiscent of 2017-2018 where the Energy sector consistently had the highest YoY earnings growth rate of all sectors.

Earnings watch in 21Q3

There are a handful of constituents that will be largely responsible for delivering 21Q3 earnings growth.  Exhibit 4 highlights the top 20 constituents that have the largest earnings contribution (PPT) along with the expected report date, mean estimate, Smart Estimate, and Predicted Surprise (PS).

This basket of constituents is currently expected to contribute 16.1 ppt towards the current forecasted 21Q3 index level earnings growth rate of 29.4%, which is just under 55%.

Exhibit 4: 21Q3 Earnings Watch

Most constituents in this basket come from Energy, Financials, Industrials, and Materials. Apple Inc, Exxon Mobil and Chevron round up the top three largest PPT contributors.

Paying attention to the PS will be important, as this will help predict any significant earnings surprise which will ultimately affect the trajectory of the index level growth rate.

The PS compares the StarMine SmartEstimate to the consensus mean. By overweighting analysts who are more accurate and timelier, the SmartEstimate provides a refined view into consensus. Comparing the SmartEstimate to the mean estimate leads to our PS, which accurately predicts the direction of earnings surprise 70% of the time when the PS is greater or less than 2% / -2%.

Within this basket, 10 constituents are expected to post a positive earnings surprise while four constituents are expected to post a negative earnings surprise. American Airlines Group, Delta Airlines, United Airlines Holding Inc, and Caesars Entertainment all have a negative PS which will be worth paying attention to as any better-than-expected numbers will provide a material boost to the 21Q3 index growth rate.

A look at 2021 and 2022

Using the EARN app in EIKON, we can see how 2021 and 2022 EPS estimates for sectors and the S&P500 overall have trended. In Exhibit 5, we show YoY growth rates for EPS for sectors and the S&P500 overall, as of one day ago, and then at 6/302021, 3/31/2021 and 12/31/2020.

Not surprisingly, given the strong YTD results, 2021E EPS for most sectors and the S&P500 overall have moved higher in each time period. The one exception is the industrials sector, which actually saw YoY growth estimates fall to a still-robust 90.3% in the most recent period from 110.5% at 6/30/2021, possibly due to the impact of rising commodity costs and supply chain disruptions. Overall, we see that earnings for the S&P500 are now expected to be up 44.7% YoY compared to the 24.4% growth rate expected at the end of last year.

Exhibit 5: EARN App Data for YoY EPS Growth

Source: Refinitiv Eikon Workspace

Interestingly, we see the opposite impact on 2022 YoY growth rates, with the expected growth rate falling to 9.2% from 16.0% at the end of 2021Q1 as per Exhibit 6.

Exhibit 6: EARN App Data for YoY EPS Growth

Source: Refinitiv Eikon Workspace

While this would seem to imply that estimated earnings growth is expected to decline for the S&P500 in 2022, this is not actually the case. The bottom-up EPS calculation from our This Week In Earnings report (available here) shows that as of 10/1/2021, 2022 bottom-up EPS is expected to be $219.94/share which is up 12.7% from $195.14/share at the start of the year, but below the 20.0% growth in 2021 estimate over this same time period. The decline in earnings growth is a factor of the denominator (ie 2021 EPS) growing faster – as we show below in Exhibit 7.

Exhibit 7: S&P 500 Bottom-up EPS Estimates


Source: I/B/E/S data from Refinitiv

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