Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Quick Look at Profits

So far, two facts stand out to me in many of the current earnings releases. First, for many large financial firms, trading profits have provided almost all of the positive results that we have seen. Second, for many large non-financial firms, cost cutting has resulted in better-than-expected earnings.

Both of these lead me to the conclusion that the basic or fundamental businesses of the companies reporting are showing little or no life. In other words, the demand for the basic products or services they provide is listless, at best. And, results like these are not sustainable.

Yes, the results are encouraging. Profits are always better than losses. But, these profits are not connected with the core business of these companies and hence give no indication that either the financial firms or the non-financial firms have established some kind of competitive advantage that will last into an economic recovery.

In terms of the large financial firms, like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, the trading profits have allowed them to post substantial earnings and get the government off their backs. Getting the government off their backs is important and will become more so in the future because these companies can pay to keep their top-flite executives or pay to attract other major talent to their organizations. They can buy time as their core businesses improve. However, trading profits are not sustainable and should not be counted over an extended period of time.

The large financial firms that have not produced, like Citigroup and Bank of America, will find themselves at a considerable competitive disadvantage, both in the United States and worldwide, as their competition can apply their strengths to continue to grow and increase market share. Plus, these non-producers are having to sell off assets like BOA’s sale of First Republic and Citigroup’s sale of Phibro even though both were profitable operations.

The last thing these organizations need is to have their pay the top officers receive drastically cut. Not only do troubled firms have problems hiring top talent, but to have the onus of the government hanging over the companies and controlling what top executives get paid is doubly bad. These financial institutions were too big to fail—immediately. But, they are not too big to fail a slow death. Certainly the government’s effort to impact the remuneration of the top executives at firms still receiving government help will skew the playing field to the Goldman’s and the JPMorgan’s.

One can understand in today’s environment that a lot of people are angry about big salaries and bonuses, especially to those that have been bailed out by the government. Certainly, the forthcoming big bonuses to be received by the executives at Goldman and JPMorgan do not help stem these populist attitudes about the pay at financial institutions. But, in this case, the response of the public is just helping the competitive position of Goldman and JPMorgan and hurting that of these other large banks because the actions on pay just makes Citi and BOA less competitive! Goldman and JPMorgan are smiling all the way to the bank!

The other banks, the regionals and the locals? They need time to continue to work out their loan and security portfolios. They need to regroup, get back to their core business and they will be fine. But, this is going to take time. Nothing substantial in profits here for a long time.

As far as the non-financial firms are concerned, their cost-cutting efforts are paying off. Their efforts to return to their core businesses are paying off. But, cost cutting alone does not produce sustainable exceptional returns. Cost cutting can be duplicated. And, as long as consumers stay on the sidelines and restructure their balance sheets and keep reducing their debt not increasing it, the final demand for goods and services will not show much bounce.

There is continued hope in one sector after another that sales will pick up. In computers. In retail sales. In food services. There is continued hope that sales will pick up during Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or at some other relevant time. But, these blips of hope seem to pass on as sales continue to disappoint. The hope is transferred to the next holiday.

Companies, for the past four or five months, have posted not-so-good earnings, but they raise their forecasts for the upcoming year.

There is nothing these companies are doing right now that produce sustainable results. Demand for their products and services must be forthcoming and, right now, there is little encouragement that this will happen any time soon.

All of these factors raise two concerns in my mind. First, what is the basis for the continued rise in stock prices. The profit results that have been achieved so far are not sustainable and point to no growth in earnings or cash flows for the time being. Furthermore, the cost cuts are great, they help companies get their focus back onto the right things. But, cost cutting does not result in a continued increase in earnings or cash flows. In addition, trading profits do not contribute to extended growth in earnings or cash flows. This is why I am concerned about the possibility that the rise in stock prices since March might just be a bubble. (See

Second, managements are refocusing their efforts and reducing inventories, labor, and other resources that they had accumulated during the go-go years. This restructuring, given past experience, will continue, even when the economy begins to recover again. These managements are not going to return to the same business practices as before. This will change the supply side of the economy and, as a consequence, full employment of resources will not be the same as it was earlier in this decade.

If this does occur, and I believe that it will, it will just be one more part of the trend that began in the 1970s. Through all the cyclical swings in the economy during the last forty years or so, the economy has never regained the height it had achieved in the previous upswing. That is, the next peak of employment, of capacity utilization, of industrial production, has never as high as it was at the previous peak.

This means that the economic policies of the last forty years or so have left more manufacturing capacity idle, more workers discouraged, and more resources wasted each cycle of the economy. The American economy is changing along with competition in the world. Artificial stimulus on the part of the United States government just tries to put people and other resources back into the jobs that they once held, like in autos and steel for example. And, such an economic policy only exacerbates the longer term trend. Furthermore, this is not helpful to the stock market.

It is easy to build a case that the rise in the stock market in the 1990s and the 2000s were asset bubbles created by easy credit. Given the performance of financial and non-financial firms at the present time could the Federal Reserve just be producing another one?

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