Over the past month, America’s largest companies reported their earnings for the first quarter of the year. These quarterly reports provide as much insight into our economy as any of our leading indicators. And these results, if read correctly, highlight once again the bifurcated world we live in. Our gross domestic product is growing about 2.5 percent a year for now, but that masks a vast divergence, not between the 1 percent and the 99 but between what works and what does not. What this earnings season demonstrates is that capital and companies are thriving, along with tens of millions of people connected to those worlds, while labor and wages are not. But that is not how it is being interpreted.
The consensus among investors and the financial media is that the quarter was something of a bust, as company after company reported only modest – and in many cases, non-existent – revenue growth. “Revenue still missing as companies beat earnings,” blared a USA Today headline, and that encapsulates what most have said.
The uber-bearish economist Gary Schilling, cited by the widely-read uber-gloomy blog Zero Hedge, put it bluntly: “Pricing power has been non-existent [and] sales volume increases have been very limited so the only route to profit has been cutting costs. That has pushed profit margins to all-time highs.” Enjoy it now, says Schilling, because profit without revenue growth is “unsustainable.” The only reason markets are doing well and corporations aren’t panicking, the thinking goes, is because central banks are flooding the world with money.
At the same time, large companies have proven adept at generating substantial earnings. That is true now, and it has been true for years. Since 2009, for instance, the mega-companies of the Standard and Poor’s 500-stock index have doubled their profits. Companies overall haven’t done quite as well because small companies don’t have the same advantages, such as keeping income offshore, assorted tax breaks and pure economies of scale. Even so, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. corporations overall have seen their profits grow more than 50 percent during these years.
But now, while larger companies are still showing earnings growth, revenues have been almost at a standstill. This trend is widely seen as proof that trouble is brewing. Companies, especially publicly traded ones, face relentless pressure to generate earning growth at all costs. With slower revenue growth, the only way they can do that is to cut costs and do whatever they can to become more efficient, from greater use of technology (and therefore fewer workers) to cutting wages and benefits, either by finding cheaper labor abroad or by cutting benefits and wages domestically. In a world of slow revenue growth, that becomes harder. Says Jeffery Kleintop, chief market strategist of the financial firm LPL, companies are going to have a hard time eliminating enough expenses to hit earnings targets. “When there’s no more fat to cut,” he says, “you start to cut muscle, and then you’re cutting bone.”