(Bloomberg Opinion) — With first-quarter earnings mostly in the books, investors have now gotten their first detailed glimpse of how the coronavirus pandemic has affected profits in corporate America. To no one’s surprise, the results as a whole weren’t good: Earnings fell about 14% from a year earlier for members of the S&P 500 Index, according to DataTrek Research.
Wall Street analysts expect things to get worse before they get better, with earnings forecast to plunge about 41% in the second quarter, decline 24% in the third quarter and drop 11% in the final three months of the year. Add them up and Wall Street forecasts a 20% tumble for the year to $127 a share. Coming into 2020, the consensus was that members of the S&P 500 would produce earnings of about $175 a share.
But that’s the mile-high view. For a real sense of the challenges facing the economy, it helps to get as granular as possible. To that end, we’ve asked those Bloomberg Opinion columnists that focus on business and finance to provide their thoughts on the quarter that snapped the longest U.S. economic expansion in history, revealing the winners and losers, highlighting interesting tidbits and musing about what may lie ahead.
Bankers are the good guys? The message from the largest U.S. banks as they released their earnings in mid-April, just as the pandemic was escalating across America? We are well-capitalized, made a lot of money from trading in extremely volatile markets, and have the capacity to help our clients get through the crisis. Unlike the financial crisis just over a decade ago, big banks have a chance to be the good guys now, processing U.S. Small Business Administration loans and allowing individuals and families to delay payments on credit cards, auto loans and mortgages in certain cases. Yet banks have been among the biggest laggards across U.S. stock markets. The KBW Bank Index has fallen about 42% this year, compared with just 12% for the S&P 500, suggesting the economic recovery might be slower and more punishing than the broader markets for equities may be signaling. —Brian Chappatta
Cable conundrums, streaming dreams. The absence of lucrative sports programming and muted advertiser demand has forced traditional cable-network operators to make an even bigger push into the rocky terrain of streaming, where revenue is entirely dependent on must-see content continuously propelling subscriptions. AT&T Inc. said total ad sales fell 13%, while Walt Disney Co. said ESPN alone suffered an 8% drop. Meanwhile, almost 16 million people signed up for Netflix and about 2 million canceled cable TV. —Tara Lachapelle
Gorging on comfort food. As panic-ridden consumers stock up on essentials, Big Food brands of yesteryear, from Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes to Kraft macaroni and cheese, that had been struggling to find their place in a new health-conscious society suddenly had a moment. This explains the resurgence of companies such as General Mills Inc., whose brands include Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Totino’s pizza rolls. Its U.S. retail sales surged 45% in March and 32% in April. The question: Is this only a moment? We’re also noticing some quirky consumer habits. Unilever NV said we are using less deodorant, skin care and shampoo, as much of this use is associated with work and socializing. Henkel AG enjoyed strong demand for home hair coloring. If the recession is a long one, expect these habits to continue. —Tara Lachapelle and Andrea Felsted
Amazon isn’t alone. E-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc.’s sales increased 26% in the quarter, and the company forecast up to 28% growth for its April-through-June quarter as nationwide lockdowns sparked a surge in online shopping. But overwhelming demand and shortages are giving its rivals opportunities as consumers increasingly shop elsewhere. It’s showing up in the latest metrics from Shopify Inc.’s merchants, as well as Wayfair Inc., Best Buy Co., Target Corp. and Costco Wholesale Corp. — all pointing to much faster online sales growth rates than the tech giant. —Tae Kim
Big Tech divergence. Shares of Facebook Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. rose post-earnings following better-than-feared commentary on April digital ad market trends. Even so, Facebook cautioned the future economic recovery may be worse than expected. And Google said not to extrapolate the stabilization that seemed to occur in April. Both internet ad giants may face business pressures going forward if companies cut their marketing budgets in coming quarters. In contrast, Amazon and Netflix are thriving as consumers increasingly shift spending to e-commerce and watch more streaming video content. Finally, Apple Inc. uncharacteristically failed to give sales guidance for its current quarter for the first time since 2003, signaling the lack of visibility it has for iPhone demand. —Tae Kim
Covid-time tech winners. Best-of-breed cloud software makers are surging as companies accelerate the spending shift away from traditional on-premise equipment to the cloud’s more scalable and cost-efficient offerings. Some of the biggest earnings winners included Datadog Inc., Okta Inc. and Twilio Inc. Video-game stocks are one of the hottest-performing subsectors this year as it has become a key in-home entertainment choice under shelter-in-place orders. Both Activision Blizzard Inc. and Electronic Arts Inc. posted strong results and confirmed accelerating sales for its offerings in April. Investors also bid up Zoom Video Communications and Slack shares as the two companies benefited from the workforce-collaboration software trend and revealed strong accelerating business metrics. —Tae Kim
Pharma unfazed, for now. As a wide variety of industries panicked and cut profit targets, large drugmakers broadly reaffirmed guidance in the first quarter. Merck & Co., which makes many hospital- and physician-administered treatments, was the only big firm to slash its drug sales forecast seriously. Making medicine is a durable business, even in a pandemic. However, if a strong second-half economic recovery doesn’t materialize, more companies may follow Merck as patients make the tough decision to stay home instead of venturing out and seeking treatments. —Max Nisen
Cover me. Large health insurers were also relatively sanguine, despite a pandemic that would seemingly spark increased claims. They believe that the dive in expensive elective surgeries will balance out adverse effects. That doesn’t mean there won’t be change. UnitedHealth Group Inc. announced this month that it plans to re-enter Obamacare’s insurance markets after mostly exiting four years ago. A 14% unemployment rate will do that. Watch for imitators. —Max Nisen
Cashing in on Covid cures? During Gilead Sciences Inc.’s first-quarter earnings call, an analyst asked CEO Daniel O’Day if investors should expect the sort of attractive returns from newly confirmed Covid treatment remdesivir that the company produces for other drugs. O’Day responded that “there’s been no other time like this in the history of the planet” and that “we understand our responsibility.” In other words, probably not. Gilead announced on Tuesday a temporary royalty-free license that will allow five generic drugmakers to make a presumably cheaper version for more than 100 low-income nations. Other companies will face pressure to follow its example and price moderately in developed countries, which calls into question the soaring valuations for pandemic-focused drugmakers. —Max Nisen
Going local. Still spending. Coronavirus shutdowns have snarled industrial-supply chains already facing strain from the U.S.-China trade war. While no one envisions an abandonment of China as a manufacturing hub, there are early signs of work being brought back to the U.S. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to mean much in terms of jobs, at least not for humans. Rockwell Automation Inc. said it’s seen an uptick in interest from companies that might have previously manufactured products out of Asia to take advantage of low wages but are now rethinking that economic calculus. When it comes to investment, discretionary spending on things like travel has been cut across the board at many manufacturers. Most CEOs and top executives have taken pay cuts. Buybacks are off the table but for a few brave souls, including Eaton Corp. But many manufacturers are continuing to fund projects they view as essential to their future growth. For United Parcel Service Inc., that means investments in automation that can help make e-commerce deliveries more profitable. For Caterpillar Inc., that’s services work and expanding its product lineup. “I’m not planning on sacrificing the future just to cut back on capex,” Honeywell International Inc. CEO Darius Adamczyk said on a recent earnings call. —Brooke Sutherland
Pink slips or paychecks? While aerospace manufacturers such as Boeing Co. and General Electric Co. have moved swiftly to announce large layoffs amid a collapse in the industry, other industrial companies have been more surgical, at least for now. Caterpillar CEO Jim Umpleby has said his company’s efforts to hold headcount relatively flat even as revenue climbed the past few years means there’s less slack in the system and the company doesn’t have to be as ruthless on job cuts during the pandemic. Others, such as railroad Union Pacific Corp., are worried about having enough labor at the ready whenever a recovery does occur so prefer furloughs when possible. “We don’t want to cut the talent so deep that when the recovery happens, we don’t have the right people,” said Greg Hayes, CEO of Raytheon Technologies Corp., whose robust balance sheet and defense business give it more flexibility to weather the commercial aerospace downturn. Companies can still save costs without cutting employees: Trash-hauler Waste Management Inc. is guaranteeing 40 hours a week of pay for full-time employees through the pandemic, but the redistribution of its workers has helped it reduce more costly overtime hours by half. —Brooke Sutherland
Staying safe. Most manufacturers have kept their doors open through the pandemic because their work is considered essential. That has come at a cost: Trash-hauler Republic Services Inc. spent $3 million in the first quarter on actions to keep its employees safe, including providing them with protective gear and doing enhanced cleaning. To keep Emerson Electric Co.’s factories humming, Chief Operating Officer Steve Pelch had to rent aircraft to bring in crucial supplies and double the number of buses used to transport workers in Mexico so they can safely spread out, according to an interview with Bloomberg News’s Thomas Black. Automated doors have been installed, as have hand-washing stations. Plexiglass partitions separate workers on the factory floor. Siemens AG digitally redesigned an Airbus SE factory that’s been repurposed for ventilator manufacturing to ensure social distancing, and workers must pass through a sanitization tent to gain access. In what could be a key test for the reopening of other parts of the economy, automakers with large union workforces including General Motors Co. and Ford Motors Co. are bringing their factories back to life this week in preparation for a May 18 official restart. Ford said it will require face masks for anyone entering its facilities, as well as safety glasses with side or face shields for those employees whose jobs don’t allow for social distancing. It’s spacing out production shifts to allow more time for cleaning and requiring employees to complete daily health and temperature checks. —Brooke Sutherland
Oil, oil everywhere. At a primeval level, the oil business is all about sinking money into the ground. When the barrel gods are smiling, even more money comes back up. In 2020, it feels like the gods aren’t happy. Hence, earnings season for oil companies was odd. While exploration and production companies are always careful to talk up efficiency, what really gets the juices flowing are spending plans for new wells. Not this time. Parsley Energy Inc., which fracks in America’s oil heartland, the Permian basin, suspended drilling, declaring bluntly (and correctly) that right now, “the world does not need more of our product.” At the other end of the scale, Exxon Mobil Corp. also slashed spending this year to as little as — get ready for it — $23 billion! While Exxon recognizes the immediate impact of Covid-19, it doesn’t think “events like this change basic human nature or people’s wants and desires.” The jury remains out on that notion. And in any case, the switch from budget boasting to public prudence offers a glimpse of what peak oil could mean for what’s ahead. Expect dissonance. —Liam Denning
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Beth Williams is a managing editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She has also worked at Bloomberg News as an editor and reporter covering M&A, markets, companies, finance and government.
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