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We’re about to get a look at what could be the best earnings season in a decade.

Analysts estimate S&P 500 profits rose 66% year-over-year in the second quarter, the strongest growth since 2010.

If you’re cheering historic growth, though, you may be missing most of the story. Markets are forward-looking, and the ground is shifting under corporate America’s feet. Expenses are rising, hiring is slowing, and consumer preferences are changing.

This season, it might be more important to focus on managements’ comments in earnings calls than the earnings releases themselves. Usually, these calls give a more detailed, intimate look into how a company is operating and what the C-suite expects in the coming months.

We’ll give you a little cheat sheet: Here are three buzzwords that could be popular (and meaningful) in upcoming earnings calls.

Chart titled Guidance Is Back, and It’s Looking Up tracks the number of S&P 500 companies issuing earnings guidance higher, in-line or lower relative to analysts’ estimates from 2011 through 2021. Peak quarters where companies’ earnings guidance was higher than analysts’ estimates include Q2 2021, Q4 2020, Q1 2018, Q3 2014, Q4 2012, Q1 2012 and Q1 2011.

“Guidance”

One of the biggest gems on earnings calls is the company’s outlook on sales and profits. And when investors are nervous about the future, they listen extra closely for guidance.

Guidance became somewhat of a lost art during COVID, but now more companies are back to issuing projections. In fact, about 100 S&P 500 companies have given second-quarter guidance, nearly double the amount that gave their outlooks for the same quarter last year.

Company projections have been overwhelmingly positive, too. The percentage of S&P 500 businesses that have issued second-quarter guidance higher than Wall Street’s estimates is around the highest in 10 years.

However, the jury is out on what the rest of the year will look like, and executives may paint a different picture of performance this season. Economic growth is expected to slow after an epic boom in demand last quarter, and the next phase of the business cycle could make it tougher for some companies to keep growing at these paces.

On that note, pay special attention to how the company is spending its cash. S&P 500 companies are sitting on a $2.3 trillion mountain of cash. Lately, they’ve spent it more on shareholder-friendly activities like stock buybacks and dividends. While there’s nothing wrong with that, a company eyeing long-term growth could get bigger bang for its buck with capital expenditures (or investing in research and equipment).

“Shortages”

Shortages are front and center in companies’ minds, and for good reason.

The economy has been in the middle of a historic labor shortage for most of this year with no end in sight. Companies have struggled to hire workers for many different reasons: pay, safety, family concerns, stimulus checks.

Labor isn’t the only scarcity, either. Businesses around the world are struggling with materials and goods shortages as well. The chip shortage is still crimping the manufacturing of cars, tech gadgets and appliances (among other products).

Graph titled A Shortage of Everything tracks mentions of the word "shortage” in S&P 500 earnings calls by quarter from Q3 2016 through Q2 2021. Mentions were between about 20 and 70 until they shot up to 154 in Q2 2021.
No matter the reason, hiring could be an issue that could start leaking into income statements. First, a lack of resources could effectively put a cap on sales (and profits). Demand may be high, but it doesn’t matter if a business doesn’t have enough workers or product to service that demand.

Also, companies have turned to pay raises to close the hiring gap, especially in service industries like restaurants and hospitality. Higher pay is good news for consumers, but bad news for a company’s bottom line. On average, wages make up about 70% of business costs, so payroll expenses can add up fast.

Look for executives to share some insights on how shortages are affecting their businesses, and when they see these abnormal dynamics settling down.

“Costs”

Speaking of costs, earnings may depend more on how well a company manages its expenses (versus the demand for its products).

Costs could be a challenge, too. Wages are on the move, and prices of raw goods are rising at the fastest clip in 12 years. Companies are trying to pass along these costs to customers, evidenced by the core Consumer Price Index’s biggest jump in decades. But companies may be having mixed success striking the right balance between price increases and demand.

If your stock’s executives are lamenting higher costs, take a look at the stock’s profit margins – or how much the company is generating in earnings per dollar of sales. If margins shrink while sales are steady, it could be a sign that costs are eating into profits.

Overall, S&P 500 profit margins have been strong, and there could be some wiggle room for higher expenses. But in the past, the stock market hasn’t reacted well to declines in profit margins.

Chart titled Can Margins Survive Rising Costs? tracks S&P 500 net profit margin by quarter from Q1 2015 through Q1 2021 and estimates from Q2 2021 through Q4 2022. Profit margins have generally stayed between 10% and 13%, although they dipped down to between 8% and 10% in Q1 and Q2 of 2020. Q2 2021 through Q4 2022 profit margins are estimated to stay consistently between 12% and 14%.
And even if S&P margins stay steady, the story could be different by industry. Margins for certain sectors like retailers and auto manufacturers could take an outsized hit in future quarters as businesses process a few months of higher costs.

The Bottom Line

While it’s expected to be a historic earnings season by many measures, don’t be surprised if you see stocks get punished because of disappointing details or outlooks from earnings calls. Investors are understandably nervous about the future, and with expectations so high, the risk this season may be greater than the reward.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty, try to re-frame volatility as opportunity, especially if you’re investing for longer-term goals. Of course, investors should always keep their individual goals and needs in mind, even when navigating earnings.

Long-term, lower earnings growth is nothing to fear, especially with profits likely growing at a double-digit rate through the end of the year. Healthy earnings growth could give crucial long-term support to this market, even if second-quarter results give the market some indigestion.

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Callie Cox, senior investment strategist, contributed to this article.

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Headshot of Lule DemmissieAs president of Ally Invest, Lule leads Ally Invest Securities, Ally Invest Advisors and API business lines. She is responsible for the products and services delivered to Ally’s all-digital client base, the shaping of the end-to-end client experience, and the management of the P&L and growth strategy for the business. Lule has a passion for investor behavior and agile product development and an appreciation of design thinking in shaping user-centric experiences.

An advocate for financial and retirement solutions that rely on a mix of digital and human guidance, Lule believes in empowering individuals, especially women and minorities, to independently drive their own financial futures.


The opinions expressed here are not meant to be used as investing advice. For more information, visit our website.