What do present large profit margins mean for stocks?
US corporate profit margins reached a half-century peak with the housing bubble. As in most recessions, margins fell. But, this time they fell precipitously, only to snap back to near that 50-year peak. The chart above from David Rosenberg’s latest daily research shows the details. What kind of takeaways can we derive from these facts?
- Clearly, US economic policy is geared toward the business sector. As I have indicated in previous posts, simple accounting demonstrates the economy’s financial sectors must balance to zero. Therefore, a massive government deficit is balanced by an equivalent surplus in the trade and private sectors. But, depending upon public policy, that surplus can fall to businesses, households or exporters.
- You should see the surge in corporate profitability as a priori proof that the US economic policy of zero rates, bailouts and stimulus is geared toward business through the maintenance of excess consumption. If we had an industrial policy more geared to promoting household deleveraging, the household sector would be doing the saving instead of the business sector.
- Because the financial sector accounts for a huge percentage of US profitability, corporate margins are highly sensitive to interest rates. The margin whiplash you see from about 1996 onward demonstrates this.
- High P/E ratios are indicative of the later stages of a bull market, not the early stages. Given that P/E margins are above their long-term average and based on high profit margins which also mean revert, you have two technical factors which will be negative for shares in the next downturn. Those who see 666 on the S&P 500 in March 2009 as a secular bear market low will be disappointed with returns over the coming years.
- Given that the savings has been done by large businesses, household balance sheets will still be stressed when the next downturn hits. I anticipate, therefore, that the next recession will show a larger than garden-variety recession consumption pullback regardless of the other stresses in the economy.
Long-story short: high margins mean-revert as do P/E ratios. That means share prices will be doubly under pressure in the next recession. Moreover, with households also likely to pull back given still high debt levels, there is a lot of downside for shares going into that downturn which I believe could begin as early as 2011.