Wednesday 23 January 2019

US main indexes suffer worst week in two years amid fears over inflation

Photo: Martin Keene/PA
Photo: Martin Keene/PA

Caroline Valetkevitch

Wall Street's main stock indexes suffered their worst week in two years as bond yields soared and renewed fears of inflation gripped investors. But amid the selloff, corporate earnings forecasts keep improving.

Forecasts for earnings, one of the fundamental factors that drives stock prices, are rising fast as analysts factor in benefits from the US tax overhaul.

Optimism over forecasts has caught the attention of anxious investors, who hope that strong earnings can support lofty stock valuations and offset the concerns over rising bond yields and the pace of Federal Reserve rate hikes. Rising interest rates in general mean higher borrowing costs for companies.

This week, fears of higher rates overwhelmed the upbeat profit picture as the benchmark S&P 500 stock index fell 3.9pc and raised some concern about a deeper pullback.

"This uptick in bond rates has everybody nervous obviously," said Gary Bradshaw, portfolio manager at Hodges Capital Management in Dallas, Texas.

"But we step back and look, and so far earnings have been awful good. Even though you have seen rates move up some here, they are still very low, inflation is still low," he said.

With half of the S&P 500 index companies still to report fourth-quarter results and potentially give guidance on 2018, profit estimates are likely to increase further.

Even after the selloff this week, the S&P 500 is up 3.3pc for this year and that is on top of a 19.4pc gain for 2017. Whether this week's downturn in global equity markets continues will depend in part on upcoming earnings reports.

Reports from both Apple and Google parent Alphabet late last Thursday disappointed investors, as did last Friday's results from ExxonMobil and Chevron, but fourth-quarter S&P 500 company results overall have been much stronger than expected. Among changes to the tax law, the corporate income tax rate drops to 21pc from 35pc, so earnings estimates for the first quarter and all of 2018 have jumped.

First-quarter profit growth for S&P 500 companies is now estimated at 17.7pc, according to Thomson Reuters data, up from 11.7pc on December 20, when both houses of Congress approved the tax revamp. Earnings growth for 2018 is now forecast at 18.2pc, up from 11.5pc on December 20.


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