May 9, 2016 / 9:47 PM / a year ago

U.S. companies brighten their earnings outlook

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The profit recession that has weighed on large-cap stocks on Wall Street for the past three quarters may be loosening its grip as U.S. companies allow a hint of blue sky to poke through the gloom.

Adobe company logos are seen in this picture illustration taken in Vienna July 9, 2013. Picture taken July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

As companies share their expectations for coming months, the proportion of raised forecasts to those that are lowered is the healthiest it has been since 2011, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Technology and healthcare sectors are leading the way with forecasts that are even rosier than those of most analysts, including from Adobe (ADBE.O) Stryker (SYK.N) and Baxter International (BAX.N). But they are not alone.

Moreover, some companies like Pfizer (PFE.N), which last week raised its full-year forecasts, are citing a benefit from the dollar. When it was rising, the dollar had been among the biggest profit drags for U.S. multinationals in recent quarters.

There have been some big negatives, however, most notably Apple Inc (AAPL.O), whose weaker-than-expected sales forecast was particularly worrying because of its potential impact on the market. Apple is the largest component of the S&P 500.

But overall, companies are bolstering analysts’ view that the first quarter, on track for a 5.5 percent decline in S&P 500 earnings, will prove to be the bottom of the current earnings recession.

“We think people are too bearish on earnings, and we’re much closer to the end of the profit recession than to the beginning,” said Richard Bernstein, chief executive and chief investment officer of Richard Bernstein Advisors in New York.

“It doesn’t mean profits are going to be booming ... but it’s better than it was, and why you’re seeing some of the rotation into more cyclical stocks now.”

For instance, the S&P energy sector .SPNY, last year’s worst-performing group, is up 7.4 percent for the year so far.

Analysts are still expecting a 3.3-percent decline in second-quarter S&P 500 earnings. But that would mark an improvement from the previous quarter and would reverse the deterioration in earnings that began in the third quarter of 2015.

The so-called earnings recession - at least three quarters of declining earnings from a year earlier - has made stocks more expensive.

The S&P 500 index .SPX is trading at about 16.7 times its components’ estimated earnings over the next 12 months, above the long-term average of about 15. Bullish investors have hoped a pick-up in profits would make prices more attractive.

To be sure, most companies’ forecasts for the second quarter are below analysts’ expectations, which is typical and sets the bar low to make it easier to beat expectations.

For the second quarter so far, 44 forecasts have come in below analysts’ expectations, while 21 have come in above, a negative-to-positive guidance ratio of 2.1 to 1. That ratio for the first quarter was at 4.7 to 1 at a comparable point in the earnings reporting season, Thomson Reuters data shows.

The weakening dollar and recovering oil prices should help forecasts a lot, said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“I think there’s a recognition that maybe the world isn’t ending after all. It makes sense to have a more cheerful outlook,” he said.

Reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch; editing by Linda Stern and Nick Zieminski

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