AMERICAN CORPORATE PROFITS AND THE S+P 500 (c) Leo Haviland August 1, 2012

In recent decades, the overall United States debt outstanding relative to nominal GDP has substantially increased. America’s national willingness to accumulate debt (borrow and spend) generally has played an important role in the generation of its economic growth. It of course is not the sole factor. This national debt increase thereby has tended to boost (be a bullish factor for) equity prices, at least up to now. A significant cut in America’s debt burden (deleveraging) probably will promote a decline in the nominal after-tax profit to GDP ratio from current elevated levels. This reduction also may encourage a slowing of after-tax profit rises, or even encourage an actual decline in profitability levels. These processes in turn probably would be bearish for US equities. Debt levels and trends are not the only factor influencing US GDP, corporate profits, and stock levels and patterns. Will American corporate profits forever keep rising? History is not destiny, but they often have declined.

Besides, growing debt does not inevitably guarantee economic health, corporate profitability, or soaring stocks, whether in America or anywhere else. Sustained Federal Reserve monetary easing buys time and sells hope, but it does not solve the US national debt problem. History reveals that at some point more and more national debt can generate grave problems. America probably is at or very near the danger level from its current and near-term debt situation, not just over the so- called long run horizon.

Let’s place American after-tax profits in the context of economic output. The average United States yearly ATP level relative to nominal GDP from 1946 to 2011 is about 6.2 percent. However, during the marvelous Goldilocks economy, and even up to the present despite the ongoing worldwide economic crisis, this indicator has been remarkably strong. Recall lows of

3.1pc in 1986 and just under 5.0pc in 2001. Before the 2004 to the present period, the last high over eight percent was 1950’s 8.6pc. From 1951 through 2004, it exceeded seven pc only three times (1978, 1979 and 2004). Over 2004-2011’s span, the average jumped to 9.0 percent.

The ratio in 2004 was 7.8pc, rising to 9.7pc in 2005 and 10.1pc in 2006. Calendar 2006 thus established a new pinnacle (going all the way back to 1929 not just 1946). In the year the global financial crisis emerged, 2007, it remained high, at 9.2pc. Even in 2008’s savage US and worldwide downturn, accompanied by the plummeting S+P 500, ATP relative to GDP were almost 7.4pc. The S+P 500 reached a major low on 3/6/09 at 667. In 2009, that ATP/GDP relationship was 8.4pc. What about the fairly sunny recovery years thereafter? The ATP total for 2010 bordered ten pc of nominal GDP, with 2011 elevated at 9.8pc.

What was the ratio of ATP for first quarter 2012 relative to GDP? Nominal 1Q12 GDP was about $15.48 trillion (annualized). Corporate profits were about $1.67 trillion (annualized). This is about 10.8pc of 1Q12 nominal GDP, thus marching beyond 2006’s joyous Goldilocks Era height to establish a new record height for that measure.

Though 2Q12’s earning reporting season has not ended, news reports suggest the nominal ATP level is approximately in line with 1Q12’s, and maybe even a couple of percentage points higher. US 2Q12 nominal GDP inched up to about $15.60 trillion from 1Q12’s $15.48tr. Thus the nominal ATP/GDP ratio probably remains around record levels.

Alongside these lofty 2012 profit levels, the S+P 500 attained new highs relative to its 2009 abyss (4/2/12 at 1422, 5/1/12 at 1415). These spring 2012 levels neighbor the S+P 500’s final summit at 1440 on 5/19/08, though they remain quite a bit beneath the major high on 10/11/07 at 1576.

An army of intertwined variables interrelate to propel the S+P 500 up, down, or sideways. However, suppose ATP slide lower relative to first half 2012 heights and that the ATP to GDP relationship retreats to fairly near the long run 6.2 percent average. All else equal, this probably will be a bearish factor for the S+P 500.

FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW to download this market essay as a PDF file.
American Corporate Profits and the S+P 500 (8-1-12)