An Overblown Threat to Stocks

The S&P 500 finished Thursday near its highest close in four years. And why shouldn't it have? The economy is getting stronger. Unemployment is falling. Confidence is rising. Most important, corporate profits are booming, now easily at an all-time high.

But that last one is a red flag, some say: While the economy might be in the early stages of recovery, corporate profits could be in the final, dying days of their own rebound. They point to profit margins, or the ratio of net income to sales. Since 1947, corporate profits have averaged about 6% of gross domestic product. Today, they're 9.8% of GDP. And as my colleague Alex Dumortier has shown, margins tend to be mean-reverting. If current profit margins shrink back to their historical norm, it could whack corporate profits -- and stocks.

Fearing a decline in profit margins is a fair point that shouldn't be ignored. But I think it's overblown. The connection between profit margins and profit growth is probably smaller than most assume. And the connection between profit margins and actual stock returns is virtually nonexistent.

Of course, falling profit margins lead to falling profits -- if you assume all else is equal. But all else is equal only in textbooks and on chalkboards. In the real world, changes in profit margins occur at the same time as changes in economic growth, taxes, revenue, interest rates, and shifts in bargaining power between workers and business owners. That changes everything.  

Since 1950, here's how real (inflation-adjusted) corporate profit growth stacks up against corporate profit margins:

Period

Real Corporate Profit Growth

Profit Margin at Beginning of Period

1950-1960 1.8% 9.8%
1960-1970 2.1% 5.5%
1970-1980 6.9% 4.2%
1980-1990 (1.9%) 5.6%
1990-2000 5% 4.6%
2000-2010 7.7% 5.1%
Current --  9.8%

Source: Federal Reserve, author's calculations.

There is a connection between profit growth and profit margins, but it's probably smaller than you think. Margins fell by nearly half between 1950 and 1960, yet earnings still grew at a nice clip -- 21% in real terms. Profit margins then stayed mostly flat between 1980 and 1990, and earnings sank. Margins stayed flat again throughout the 1990s, and earnings boomed. Any connection that does exist isn't strong enough to bet on.

Rather than fret over what happens if margins fall, a better question is: Why are today's margins so high?

I recently sat down with Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel. When I asked him about the impact falling profit margins could have on stocks, he shook his head, disagreeing with the idea that margins are bound to fall. "Profit margins are higher on foreign sales, and everyone knows the percentage of foreign sales has been going way up," he said. "It also has to do with technology, which is very big on our foreign sales, and has by far the highest margins of any of the industrial sectors. So especially when technology sales are expanding, that's a permanent increase, I think, in those profit margins."

A simple example shows what he means. When General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) was one of the nation's largest and most dominant companies in the 1960s, it had a profit margin of about 7%. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) , today's largest and arguably most important company, has a profit margin of 24%. High-margin technology-based industries have increased to 4.6% of GDP today from an immeasurable amount 50 years ago. Manufacturing, famous for razor-thin margins, has declined from 25% of GDP in 1960 to 11% in 2009. It should be no wonder that overall margins have risen over time.

A more powerful cause of today's high margins is businesses' push to become lean and efficient. For the last 40 years, employee compensation as a share of GDP has been declining, but the trend went berserk around 2008 as businesses slashed overhead and squeezed work out of existing workers in order to keep profits intact as the economy sank:

Source: Federal Reserve, author's calculations.

To the extent this chart explains why profit margins are currently high, there's an important corollary. If profit margins are high because businesses are operating with low headcounts and paying low wages, then margins will fall only when businesses ramp up hiring and pay better wages.

Would that be bad for profits? It would not. Lower unemployment and stronger consumers would clearly be better for business. If profit margins fall but revenue rises, profits can still be superb. Indeed, this is what happened in the late 1990s -- margins fell from 6.5% in 1996 to 5.1% in 2000 as compensation expenses rose, but profits kept up nicely because revenue grew in lockstep. It's likely that we'll experience the same going forward: falling margins, but still-strong profits.

None of this, however, should really matter to investors. The most important set of numbers in this debate are these:

Period

S&P 500 Return

Change in Profit Margin

1950-1960 210.5% (4.3%)
1960-1970 22.5% (1.3%)
1970-1980 7.5% 1.4%
1980-1990 214.8% (1%)
1990-2000 303.6% 0.4%
2000-2010 (2.7%) 4.7%

Sources: S&P Capital IQ, Federal Reserve, author's calculations.

In a separate conversation last October, Professor Siegel made a telling comment in reference to stock valuations: "You don't need [earnings] growth to justify these numbers." If stocks are cheap, you don't need high earnings growth to get big returns. And if stocks are expensive, even huge earnings growth can leave investors underwater.

This is exactly what we've seen over history. Profit margins plunged in the 1950s and earnings growth slowed, but stocks boomed because they were cheap at the beginning of the period. Same in the 1980s. The 2000s saw a big jump in margins and the fastest profit growth in history, yet it was one of the worst decades for investors ever because stocks were so grossly overvalued in 2000.

The important question, then, is whether stocks are currently cheap or expensive. Alas, that debate offers no clear-cut answers. Opinions of equally smart investors currently range from "dirt cheap" to "way overvalued."

But the broader point remains. Whether margins are going to fall, or even whether earnings are going to decline, is not the end-all of importance. What matters is whether valuations anticipate those things happening. Being diagnosed with the flu can be spectacular news if you expected it to be cancer. Investing is similar. It's all relative.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and General Motors. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (24) | Recommend This Article (59)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2012, at 11:03 AM, 1984macman wrote:

    Many stocks are cheap, based on historic P/E ratios. Apple is only the most obvious example, with a P/E over the first decade of this century that averaged 30, and with a present P/E of 14.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2012, at 2:26 PM, Fumaten wrote:

    Morgan,

    Thanks for a very good analysis.

    Agree with you that:

    " What matters is whether valuations anticipate those things happening. Being diagnosed with the flu can be spectacular news if you expected it to be cancer. Investing is similar. It's all relative."

    The word is: It's all relative in investments,

    it is one of the reasons I am tracking daily smart money movements between the markets by the help of " I Know First" system with good results so far.

    IMO we enter to a period of high markets volatility.

    Good Luck!

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 12:40 PM, easystreet70 wrote:

    frankly, if your last few articles had addressed the $7 tn in debt added in 4 years, insane money printing, european crisis, etc...i would consider it to be fairly objective...

    it just seems to me that you are hell-bent on painting a rosy picture....when things are extremely precarious, and a lot of people have fallen off the unemployment statistics [because they can't find work].

    pardon me if i seem harsh....but i know what is happening around me, and i know destructive debt & monetary policy when i see it...and it can't be swept under the rug.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 12:42 PM, CapngainerII wrote:

    " The important question, then, is whether stocks are currently cheap or expensive. Alas, that debate offers no clear-cut answers. Opinions of equally smart investors currently range from "dirt cheap" to "way overvalued." "

    Now that we've cleared up the profit margin question, and since the " cheap " or " expensive " debate is of utmost importance, how about an article focusing on that ?

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 12:52 PM, easystreet70 wrote:

    edit...

    if the market could reach these highs in the absence of massive monetary easying/debt [during the last several years], then i would concede a few points....

    however, market highs that are built on mainly low volume, qe's, unsustainable debt, and a questionable recovery....seem more like a bubble to me.

    i reserve the right to be wrong...but there is very real economic danger for this nation, & there's some pretty clear writing on the wall.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 12:55 PM, TMFHousel wrote:

    <<it just seems to me that you are hell-bent on painting a rosy picture....when things are extremely precarious>>

    Three years ago I was accused of being hell-bent of always painting a dire picture. I've changed now because the facts have changed.

    Indeed, I have addressed the debt situation in nearly every article I've written lately. To repeat: Total debt as a percentage of GDP has been in decline for 4 years now.

    <<a lot of people have fallen off the unemployment statistics because they can't find work>>

    You don't fall off the unemployment statistics because you can't find work. You fall off when you stop looking for work. And even then you're still counted in other measures of unemployment, which have also been in decline lately. In fact, the unemployment rate that counts those who have stopped looking for work is falling faster than the standard unemployment rate. http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2012/02/09/more-on-the...

    Thanks,

    Morgan

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 12:59 PM, TMFHousel wrote:

    Curious: By what standard is market volume low right now? Only if you compare today's volume to the absolutely unprecedented 2008-2009 period does it look low. Viewed in a larger timeframe, volume is quite high these days.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 1:16 PM, easystreet70 wrote:

    7 tn in 4 years & tn+ budget deficits as far as the eye can see....that's unsustainable. when interest rates inevitably rise, what will the feds do about a massive debt load at ever larger shares of fiscal budget? would debt vs. gdp have been in decline without massive [& in my opinion, detrimental] federal intervention? how long can that be sustained?

    secondly, do you honestly believe the market would be this high without the monetary easing?

    unemployment may be improving slightly...but almost everyone i know is hurting badly. this is not a political game for them--it's survival.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 2:17 PM, Spetty772002 wrote:

    This is 2008 all over again. The market is overheated and the only reason the market is trading even close to where it is is due to the massive money-printing and subsequent inflation. The same CDS' that triggered the collapse in 2008 are still being written, and a lot of them have been written European countries' government debt. Why do you think that they're doing everything in their power so Greece doesn't default, or at least they won't call it a default (uh, usually a write-down in principal is known as a "default", no?)? Because it will set off the next wave of CDS defaults and this time the US government won't have the money to bail people out when we're already so far in debt.

    Per Ben Bernanke himself, the economy is in tenuous shape and the employment rate isn't a true reflection of the situation in the job market. He's priming the pump for yet more QE. With continued money-printing, as the countries buying our treasuries (of which the number of countries and amount of their purchases has decreased substantially as more countries like China are wisely putting their money into gold and other hard assets, the Fed is the biggest buyer now) they can't keep rates low forever. As soon as blended rates rise by 2%, the US is screwed and will likely be unable to pay even the interest payments on our ballooning debt-load and we become Greece. Of course, if they choose to keep propping up the stock market by printing money like it's going out of style, the interest payments will be become unsustainable with an increasingly smaller future increase in interest rates. So pick your poison, do you want hyperinflation or do you want a deflationary depression, because if they don't stop printing we end up with hyperinflation. If they do stop printing, we go into the deflationary depression that the US government has been trying to paper over for the past 4 years. You know that if you back out government spending, we've been in a depression since 2009, right?

    One thing is for sure: you can't print your way out of debt and that's exactly what the US is trying to do. Right now, all Bernanke is trying to do is avoid the ultimate crash from happening until he's no longer the Fed chairman. Depending on which policy the government chooses, there will be hyperinflation (in which case the stock market will REALLY skyrocket LOL and IMO is the most likely scenario as the government has proven utterly incapable of cutting even a small amount of spending) or deflation, in which case we get a collapse worse than 2008 since the government doesn't have the money to bail everyone out again.

    The bottom line is that the math doesn't lie, and if you really believe what stating, you're going to find that out the hard way when the bottom falls out, which IMO will happen by 2015-2016 at the latest.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 3:05 PM, Fonz56 wrote:

    Wasn't for cheap and good stocks, I wouldn't be in the market. That said, If you put the CEO's, and other management's excessive salaries in the mix, I think the picture would be different. Years ago I told a friend I didn't think her getting .50 cents a share (too which she was excited), when the management received a far greater amount. My opinion if a company isn't profitable salaries should remain the same and stockholders should have the biggest say-so in who runs the organization and how much is paid.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 3:07 PM, rbraseth wrote:

    Dear Mr. House,

    To examine this economy by only two parameters would be as crazy as scouting the New England Patriots focusing only on the QB and a single receiver and with help from only one person (guy from Wharton). Firing employees and squeezing the last big of juice from the others is not a sustainable way to continue growing money.

    The diminishing middle class has no more money to spend because we don't have any compared to say, 20 years ago. Our money doesn't cycle through the system like it used to.

    Official unemployment numbers are dropping, but they fail to take into consideration the nuances on those numbers. Americans are not going back to similar jobs. Far from it.

    Okay, Greece seems to have made it's first credit card bill. There are many more to come. See the riots yesterday? Spain has 22 percent unemployment. Italy will implode. All of Europe is going on an austerity plan. They needed it, but what happens to spending? It's a vicious cycle. There will be mass social unrest.

    Who knows about China. In the meantime, you and your academic send all your family members into the equity markets 100%. Thanks for the chance to throw in my two bits.

    -ralph braseth,

    Chicabgo

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 4:03 PM, xetn wrote:

    I know you don't like this site, but the information is relevant:

    http://www.shadowstats.com/charts/employment

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 4:06 PM, xetn wrote:

    Oh and by the way, when an economy is really expanding, salaries typically increase as employers compete for employees. That is not happening and many previously laid off employees have taken lower paying or part time employment to put food on the table. That is not an economy that is improving.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 7:29 PM, kyleleeh wrote:

    I've said it before in a previous article and I'll say it again:

    This kind of unbridled pessimism and insistence that we are perpetually screwed for life, that I've been seeing on the threads lately is EXACTLY what one would expect right before major turnarounds.

    As Buffet said "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful"

    In 2005 when everyone told me stop flushing my rent down the toilet and take out a home loan I was afraid.

    In 2012 when everyone on these threads insists the next dark ages is around the corner...I'm all in.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2012, at 8:04 PM, daveandrae wrote:

    ^

    Amen

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2012, at 9:22 AM, Ostrowsr wrote:

    It works great for me to follow Motley Fool recommendations BUT, being conservative, it's best to look at a companies PE and PEG before purchasing. And then watch closely for the unknown unknowns. This way the pros at M.F. evaluate the companies closely. However, I've found that on occasion, the overbought condition of some of the recommendations cause a large collapse when something bad happens (i.e.. Netflix). Following the conservative approach lower the rusk dramatically.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2012, at 10:58 AM, jrj90620 wrote:

    It's not that complicated.When the Fed is in inflation mode,like today, and devaluing the fiat, all real assets appreciate in fiat terms.Fiat(U.S. Dollars) and fiat promises(bonds,govt debt) decline.So,we should see rising stock,commodity,real estate markets,with rising inflation everywhere.When the public starts complaining more about inflation than unemployment and/or the Dollar goes into free-fall,the Fed will be forced to raise interest rates and we go into a bear market.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2012, at 5:12 PM, dvdcunn wrote:

    I'm astonished that comments found this article of any value.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2012, at 8:36 PM, Marcopolish wrote:

    Sorry Marshall: first off, Siegel is entirely compromised and I wouldn't trust him to feed my dog. Second, Stocks are only levitating due to anticipation of the finish-out of the year-four presidential cycle, anticipating goodies throughout the year until the election is over. Third: the only people trading the market (note the low volume) are the machines, trading back and forth, just like in the 20s when much of the market was Goldman and Lehman off book funds trading each other back and forth, back and forth, bidding bidding bidding tulip bulb style, while insiders get out out out. Fourth, having monetized the debt by exchanging bad assets for real US bonds and letting the big banks (the "primary bond dealers") leverage them into dollars to put into the market, while the employment rate (not the fudged "un-employment" rate) drops and compensation drops...and as our foreign customers go through recession, they won't be buying much more for awhile...consumer debt back on the rise and most business orders mainly re-stocking inventory...every time GM receives an order from a dealer, they log it as a vehicle "sold" to the end market, hah!...and new jobs at 25,000 and no benefits is not quite the same as old jobs with benefits and $60,000... see, the problem is: Keynsians don't like facts, they like models, they don't like direct sampled evidence, they like assumptions, and they don't understand long-term dis-inflationary cycles, which we are now in...except for commodities which are inflated by flooding the markets with currency...sorry, maybe we don't see a plunge for a while, but we aren't going anywhere either. Risk-on is a gambler's game...sure, bonds yields could back up, but not because real business is out there. Preservation of capital is still the high-probability bet. Return on capital is a gambler's bet...

  • Report this Comment On February 13, 2012, at 9:07 AM, Davemuse wrote:

    Morgan,

    I’ve been impressed by a number of your past posts, but I’m non-pulsed by your rational for continued economic strength in our current volatile economic situation:

    1st, you seem to put great stock in the recent “rosy” employment numbers, notwithstanding the long understood problem of assuming that people receiving unemployment benefits are the only folks who are unemployed. At best, it is but an approximate assessment of employment, regularly subject to adjustments after being calculated, sometimes with adjustments that are huge, and currently which are wildly off the mark because so many people have exhausted their benefits and are officially off the charts yet still unable to find jobs. It is widely accepted that this latter group includes millions of people, plus millions more employed part-time but wanting full-time work. Thus, some analyses conclude that the true ranks of the unemployed have NOT declined in the past year. It may be true that those people with income-earning jobs may not feel the threat of unemployment and are more confident these days and upbeat about future prospects, but their isolated perspectives may not be grounded in reality. Measures of employment/unemployment are more shots in the dark because we infer the data from proximate information rather than actual employment and actual unemployment.

    2nd, the Euro-zone community is in significant difficulty, current news indicating that most of those economies are going backwards, including Germany, with some having already slipped into actual recession. Recession in Europe seems to be a foregone conclusion. Also, growth is slowing in China and Japan. How can all this not soon impact our American economy, given that these folks are key trading partners of the United States?

    3rd, U.S. spendable income for the bottom 50% of American workers is already going backwards, reflecting the efforts to reduce salaries and/or compensation of American workers. This part of our economy is already in recession, which is the alternative interpretation of your declining compensation graph. Worse, states and local governments, as well as some private sector companies, are continuing to press for 10% or 20% or even 30% reductions in compensation, as documented in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Yesterday’s headlines are now becoming actual, impacting spendable income. In the private sector, threats of off-shoring continue to assist efforts to reduce wages and benefits, and now conspicuously include organizations with predominantly middle class employees like accountants. Health care reform to-date has most often taken the form of demanding that those employed take a big reduction in their compensation package, and spend more of their paychecks on medical costs, leaving fewer dollars for everything else.

    4th, some observers note that leading indicators such as shipping charges and volume by both ocean-going shipping companies and the U.S. railroads have already begun to slip – which historically have been indicators that volume will be down going forward, thus firms are cutting rates to try and insure their survival in tough times. If fewer goods are shipped, goods sold must decline.

    5th, you cite company financial stability as a positive. However, corporate profits and the large cash holdings being maintained without nice increases in production suggests that they have monopoly pricing power even under weak economic and consumer spending conditions. Corporate profits (high) may have diverted attention from the quantity of goods sold (stagnant or at least with lower increases than the Dow). The fact that company P/E ratios have been rising faster than economic growth would suggest that we may well have been witnessing a desperate effort by investors to find some avenue to get appreciation in their portfolios and avoid putting funds in money market accounts that pay close to zero. So rather than company strength, isn’t it possibly that folks are bidding shares higher than the underlying valuation would justify, and that the large gains in the Dow are the result of too much money chasing meager production increases. Such phony valuations have to burst some time, don’t they?

  • Report this Comment On February 13, 2012, at 10:33 AM, TMFHousel wrote:

    Thanks for your comments.

    <<but I’m non-pulsed by your rational for continued economic strength in our current volatile economic situation:>>

    Never said it was strong; just getting better. Big difference.

    People don't fall off the unemployment rolls when they exhaust their benefits. They fall off when they stop looking for work. And to repeat from the above: Measures of unemployment that count those who have given up and those who want full-time work are falling as well. Still high, but falling.

    <<some observers note that leading indicators such as shipping charges and volume by both ocean-going shipping companies and the U.S. railroads have already begun to slip>>

    Rail traffic is rising: http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2012/02/aar-rail-traffic-i...

    I'm not sure what you're referring to when you say profits are rising without an increase in production. Real GDP is at an all-time high.

    Thanks!

    Morgan

  • Report this Comment On February 13, 2012, at 12:17 PM, airborne18th wrote:

    Unemployment data is just about worthless. A better metric is particpation rate as a function of population ( both available to work and as a whole ).

    Also wage data is skewed by the trend in early retirement packages and layoffs designed to purge older workers who are at the higher end of compensation and replacing them with college grads. It also helps reduce the average age for health care costs.

    But my statements have almost nothing to do with corporate profits, just as yours do not either.

    The real risk to corporate profits, and why the markets chould have concern, is how the cheap dollar policy inflates earnings.

    If you look at corporate earnings, the global profits are driving more of the earnings growth than domestic issues. Though I agree the latter is debatable.

    However, when the FED finally loses control of our cheap interest rates there will be two major impacts. First the dollar will rise and erase the inflated profits from international, and the higher rates will force a revaluation of assets. Both are two major negative forces looming over the market.

  • Report this Comment On February 14, 2012, at 4:49 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    Because it seems to have been missed repeatedly, I would like to point out the difference between the words "improving" and "strong."

    Zero people are claiming that the economy is awesome. Zero. None.

    Some people - and increasing numbers of us - are making the claim that it looks like the economy is improving. That doesn't mean it can't turn back around, it doesn't mean it's going to be flawless next month, and it doesn't mean there aren't compelling problems to be addressed.

    But if I simply hammer away at every data point to force it to fit my pre-existing world view, I'm going to miss out on what's really happening in the world around me until it's too late.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2012, at 1:48 AM, dsciola wrote:

    Morgan,

    I've been following along in your recent articles and I enjoy hearing your analysis. Me personally, I'm not sure yet if I'm sold on the economy improving. Seems like there are many factors for each side, lowering employment and increased production on the pro side, QE - infinity and Euro crisis on the con, as well as others.

    My question is what do you think of the possibility of a 'tech bubble' playing a major role in the current recovery, whether real or not? We have had a plethora of hyped tech IPO's, Facebook coming soon to say the least, strong profits across the board for the tech companies. For example I read that UBS noted that S&P earnings grew 6.6% YoY and after factoring out AAPL the S&P 500 (or 499 I guess here) grew 2.8%, a bit smaller.

    I'de be curious to also see how many jobs have been recently added due to tech and its recent growth if there are any hard statistics on that.

    Case in point, I am a recent college grad looking to start a career. I've noticed that a lot of my fellow grads have started entry level positions in tech, e.g. Amazon, Zillow, ZuluLilly. Quite a few postings I have come across are for tech firms. Nonetheless, I realize the potential shortcoming in taking one anecdotal case such as this, but I feel it bears merit especially if we may be in any sort of tech bubble 2.0

    Just my thoughts, would love to hear yours.

    Dom

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