Trading Desk: How Fast Is The Corporate Economy Deteriorating?

This was a make-or-break earnings season and now we have clarity on how all but a handful of members of the S&P 500 held up last quarter. More importantly, we have a sense of what their executives see happening in the here and now.

Go back to the end of March. The Fed had already crashed a few banks. Everyone was braced for an economic downturn. The only questions revolved around how bad it would get and when it would start.

Wall Street plugged all the available numbers into the models and determined that we were already in the middle of a six-month earnings recession. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen confirmation that the models were right. Last quarter was a struggle for America’s biggest companies.

But that’s the past. We’re about halfway through a new quarter now. Interest rates are a little higher. Inflation is a little lower. And the tough comparisons to the COVID bubble have receded a little farther into Wall Street’s rear view.

Guidance is not great. There’s no catalyst in the economy that would suggest a miraculous recovery in the year-over-year trends. If anything, the odds favor some unwelcome shock delaying the moment when we finally defeat this bear market and get back to work.

Right now, based on all the earnings reports and conference calls I’ve digested in recent weeks, I won’t be surprised if earnings across the S&P 500 for the current quarter come in 6% below last year’s levels. That’s how big the cliff is.

It’s also exactly what we expected to see in the previous quarter. But as it turns out, the drag wasn’t as deep as anticipated. Earnings came in 4 percentage points better than they initially looked.

To put it in the simplest possible terms, “it wasn’t so bad after all.” Wall Street didn’t want to be caught off guard last quarter so the most bearish scenarios got more attention and heavier weight in the models.

And here’s the deal: corporate executives haven’t said much in all those hundreds of conference calls that forced those already-gloomy projections to drop much lower. Right now, it looks like the current quarter will be as bad as we thought last quarter was going to be.

That’s what guidance suggests. It’s what all those executives feel comfortable telling us they’ll report when all the numbers finalize three months from now. Since we’re putting things in simple terms, it’s the best scenario they think they can get away with . . . and defend themselves to the regulators if they were wrong.

All in all, they’ve forced Wall Street to lower our sense of the current quarter by about 1 percentage point. Here we are in the middle of the quarter and that’s the amount all those executives think things have gotten worse over the past six weeks.

It’s bad. But again, it isn’t exactly a cliff. Again, it’s roughly the year-over-year trend we were steeled to see three months ago, before the banks were failing and when interest rates were a little lower. Back then, the market was roughly where it is now. That seems fair.

And either way, every day we survive current conditions proves that current conditions are survivable. We know the economy is still on the stale side. Every day, we hear about layoffs and bank failures. We see prices climbing. We don’t feel richer. We feel poorer.

But that’s life on Main Street. As investors, we’re always searching for hope that the worst is over and the future will once again start looking better than the present. And if we can’t find hope, we’ll have to settle for a little relief.

That relief now looks like it’s barely three months away. The current quarter should be as bad as it gets. As I mentioned, “as bad as it gets” looks about as bad as the previous quarter initially looked.

The fourth quarter, on the other hand, is starting to shape up extremely well for the bulls. October is only five months away. As long as we get through the summer, I think we’ll be all right.

And since Wall Street is all about anticipation, the time to get in position for October is now.