As earnings season kicks off, only 48% of companies have resumed giving investors guidance

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Wondering what to expect as companies begin to report Q3 earnings this week? One of the most stunning changes in corporate practices brought on by COVID is that half of the companies in the S&P 500 have given investors nothing to go on. Given the big valuations Wall Street is awarding their stocks, it’s worrying that the giants of the S&P are a lot less confident about where earnings are headed than investors appears to be.

The details are revealed in a new report from FactSet, the firm that polls Wall Street analysts on their outlook for the S&P 500 profits. FactSet studied earnings releases, investor presentations, and conference transcripts to assemble its data. It found that as the second quarter progressed, no fewer than 184 of the 285 of the S&P members that historically furnish guidance either withdrew their previous forecasts, or declined to provide projections for 2020 or 2021, almost all citing uncertainly caused by the pandemic. An astounding three-out-of-four of America’s big cap stalwarts—that typically pride themselves on tracing the path ahead—deemed the future so mercurial that they gave up.

But during the Q2 season––meaning the period after the quarter’s close when companies provided earnings releases and additional information in presentations to investors––the roster of S&P members providing guidance jumped from 101 to 138, an increase of 37%. Still, only 48% of the 284 regular guidance-givers are back in the game, while over half remain too unsure to resume insights into their pipeline for earnings.

In general, the 138 companies giving guidance after the close of Q2 were a lot more optimistic than in the dark, post-third quarter period. Fifty-nine raised their EPS forecasts over Q1 season, 41 stayed the same, and only 26 expect numbers lower than they were projecting three or so months earlier (12 gave no guidance in the Q1 season). Companies’ confidence in what lies ahead varies enormously by industry. Only 33 of the 37 index’s consumer discretionary members that year after year provided guidance are still issuing predictions, and over half of the 58 industrials withdrew, while two-thirds of health care cohort, and every one of the 29 utilities, either never suspended, or have reinstated their forward-looking pronouncements.

Among the consumer goods dropouts are Coca-Cola, Constellation Brands, Whirlpool, General Mills, and Darden Restaurants, joined by industrials Raytheon, Honeywell, Air Products & Chemicals, and General Motors. On the other hand, Walgreens Boots, Johnson Controls, Motorola Solutions and especially a parade of healthcare giants that include Becton Dickinson, Quest Diagnostics, and Anthem all restored guidance.

The increase in the ranks of the S&P forecasting better times ahead has apparently cheered Wall Street. The analysts surveyed by FactSet now foresee a decline in EPS of 20.5% versus Q3 of last year, five points better than the drop forecast on June 30. Nevertheless, that would be the steepest fall since Q2 of 2009 in the depths of the financial crisis. The road ahead is now clearer, but it’s still plenty rocky. Given the S&P’s gigantic valuation––even based on 2019’s record earnings––it looks like investors are ignoring the potholes and soft shoulders at their peril.

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