How bad will earnings be? Nobody really knows

With that in mind, earnings for the first quarter — and the remainder of 2020 — are likely to be bleak.

According to estimates from FactSet, earnings for S&P 500 companies are expected to fall 10% in the first quarter compared to a year ago. That would be the worst performance since a more than 15% decline in the third quarter of 2009.

And analysts are forecasting a stunning 20% year-over-year drop in the second quarter.

Estimates have been slashed severely for oil giants Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX), automakers GM (GM) and Ford (F) and aerospace leader Boeing (BA), FactSet said.

The hope is that the pace of the profit declines will let up in the second half of the year. But analysts are still predicting earnings will be down 8.5% in the third quarter and about 1% in the fourth quarter.

As awful as all this sounds, some think that near-term profit targets should be reduced further. If the United States (and the rest of the world, for that matter) winds up being in a recession that lasts for more than just a few quarters, then Wall Street’s forecasts may very well turn out to be way too rosy.

McDonald's sales have plunged because of coronavirus

After all, analysts are flying blind now that so many companies have withdrawn their outlooks for the rest of the year.

“Companies are scrambling to suspend guidance,” said Erik Knutzen, chief investment officer for multi-asset class portfolios at Neuberger Berman. “Nobody really knows what’s next. This is uncharted territory.”

Knutzen argues that earnings for all of 2020 could wind up plunging between 25% and 30% from a year ago.

And there is precedent for things to get that bad. During the Great Recession, earnings plunged 29% in the third quarter of 2008 (when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt) and then plummeted 69% in the fourth quarter of that year. Earnings then fell 35% in the first quarter of 2009 and 27% in the second quarter of that year.

The good news? After another steep drop in the third quarter, profits more than doubled in the fourth quarter of 2009 as the downturn came to an end.

Banks kick off first quarter earnings season

Most of the coming week’s big earnings are in the financial sector.

Mega banks JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Wells Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) will report their latest results. All four are expected to post steep drops in earnings per share compared to a year ago.
It will be interesting to see what this quartet of banks — as well as big regional lenders US Bancorp (USB) and PNC (PNC) — have to say about demand for small business and consumer loans in light of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The top banks have all pledged to take part in the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. And the financial sector is in much better shape to help the economy now than it was in 2008. Problems at the banks were the root of that financial crisis.
Jamie Dimon predicts a 'major recession' is on its way
Investment banking powerhouse Goldman Sachs (GS) will also release its latest earnings. The Wall Street king is expected to report a sharp slowdown in revenue because it’s being asked to do less work on mergers and initial public offerings.

And investors will also get a glimpse of how the market madness of the first quarter is hurting providers of top exchange-traded funds.

BlackRock (BLK), the asset manager that owns the iShares family of ETFs, and State Street (STT), which runs the SPDR sector ETFs, will both report their first quarter earnings.

Up next

Monday: Major exchanges in Europe as well as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange are closed for Easter Monday

Tuesday: JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) earnings
Wednesday: UnitedHealth (UNH), Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs earnings; US retail sales and industrial production reports for March

Thursday: BlackRock earnings; US weekly initial unemployment claims and housing starts report for March

Friday: Schlumberger (SLB) and State Street earnings; Eurozone consumer price inflation report for March

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