The “Revenue Recession” is alive and well, at least when it comes to the 30 companies of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Every month we look at what brokerage analysts have in their financial models in terms of expected sales growth for the Dow constituents. This year hasn’t been pretty, with Q1 down an average of 0.8% from last year and Q2 to be down 3.5% (WMT and HD still need to report to finish out the quarter). The hits keep coming in Q3, down an expected 4.0% (1.4% less energy) and Q4 down 1.8% (flat less energy).
The good news is that if markets discount 2 quarters ahead, we should be through the rough patch because Q1 2015 analyst numbers call for 1.9% sales growth, with or without the energy names of the Dow. The bad news is that analysts tend to be too optimistic: back in Q3 last year they thought Q2 2015 would be +2%, and that didn’t work out too well.
Overall, the lack of revenue growth combined with full equity valuations (unless you think +17x is cheap) is all you need to know about the current market churn. And why it will likely continue.
The most successful guy I’ve ever worked for – and he has the billions to prove it – had the simplest mantra: “Don’t make things harder than they have to be”. In the spirit of that sentiment, consider a simple question: which Dow stocks have done the best and worst this year, and why? Here’s the answer:
The three best performing names are UnitedHealth (+19.3%), Visa (+18.2%) and Disney (14.2%).
The worst three names are Dupont (-28.3%), Chevron (-23.5%) and Wal-Mart (-16.0%).
Now, consider the old market aphorism that “Markets discount two quarters ahead” (remember, we’re keeping this simple). What are analysts expecting for revenue growth in Q3 and Q4 that might have encouraged investors to reprice these stocks higher in the first 7 months of the year?
And for the worst three? How about -22.1%. Don’t make things harder than they have to be.
That, in a nutshell, is why we look at the expected revenue growth for the 30 companies of the Dow every month. Even though earnings and interest rates ultimately drive asset prices, revenues are the headwaters of the cash flow stream. They also have the benefit of being easier for an analyst to quality control than earnings. Not easy, mind you – just easier. Units, price and mix are the only three drivers of revenues you have to worry about. When those increase profitably the rest of the income statement – including the bottom line – tends to take care of itself.
By both performance and revenue growth measures, 2015 has been tough on the Dow. It is the only one of the three major U.S. “Indexes” to be down on the year, with a 2.3% decline versus +1.2% for the S&P 500 and +6.3% for the NASDAQ. Ten names out of the 30 are lower by 10% or more, or a full 33%. By comparison, we count 107 stocks in the S&P 500 that are lower by 10% or greater, or only 21% of that index.
Looking at the average revenue growth for the Dow names tells a large part of the story, for the last time the Average enjoyed positive top line momentum was Q3 2014 and the next time brokerage analysts expect actual growth isn’t until Q1 2016. The two largest problems are well understood: declining oil and other commodity prices along with an increase in the value of the dollar. For a brief period there was some hope that declining energy company revenues would migrate to other companies’ top lines as consumers spent their energy savings elsewhere. That, of course, didn’t quite work out.
Still, we are at the crosswords of what could be a turn back to positive growth in 2016. Here’s how Street analysts currently expect that to play out:
At the moment, Wall Street analysts that cover the companies of the Dow expect Q3 2015 to be the trough quarter for revenue growth for the year. On average, they expect the typical Dow name to print a 4.0% decline in revenues versus last year. Exclude financials, and the comp gets a little worse: 4.4%. Take out the 2 energy names, and the expected comp is still negative to the tune of 1.5%.
Things get a little better in Q4, presumably because we start to anniversary the declines in oil prices as well as the strength of the dollar. These both began to kick in during Q4 2014, and as the old Wall Street adage goes “Don’t sweat a bad quarter – it just makes next year’s comp that much easier”. That’s why analysts are looking for an average of -1.8% revenue comps for Q4, and essentially flat (-0.01%) when you take out the Dow’s energy names.
Go all the way out to Q1 2016, and analysts expect revenue growth to finally turn positive: 1.9% versus Q1 2015, whether you’re talking about the whole Average or excluding the energy names. Better still, analysts are showing expected revenue growth for all of 2016 at 4.1%. OK, that’s probably overly optimistic unless the dollar weakens next year. But after 2015, even 1-3% growth would be welcome.
We’re still keeping it simple, so let’s wrap up. What ails the Dow names also hamstrings the U.S. equity market as whole. We need better revenue growth than the negative comps we’ve talked about here or the flattish top line progressions of the S&P 500 to get stocks moving again. The third quarter seems unlikely to provide much relief. On a more optimistic note, our chances improve in Q4 and even more so in Q1 2016. Until we see the U.S. economy accelerate and/or the dollar weaken and/or oil prices stabilize, the chance that investors will pay even higher multiples for stagnant earnings appears remote. That’s a recipe for more volatility – potentially a lot more.