It's easy to get complacent when corporate earnings exceed expectations. Numerous companies throughout the economy have posted strong and improving results in the past few weeks. But don't let these numbers lull you into a false sense of security. A look under the hood reveals three trends at work in the market today -- two of which deeply concern me.
Trend No. 1: Higher input costs
Commodity prices are at or near record highs. At nearly $100 a barrel, oil is 70% higher than its 10-year average. Corn at $7 a bushel is 67% higher under a similar measure. And at $1 a pound, upland cotton, the most widely planted cotton species in the United States, is 53% higher than its 10-year average.
Prices at these levels erode the bottom line. Kimberly-Clark
Trend No. 2: Stagnant growth in developed markets
Western economies are still struggling to emerge from the financial catastrophe of 2008. The U.S. unemployment rate remains above 9%. American housing prices are below 2005 levels. And Europe continues to claw itself out of a sovereign-debt crisis.
Taken together, these factors reversed or impeded second-quarter sales growth in Western markets. Sales volumes at Kimberly-Clark's personal-care segment were down 1% in Europe and flat in North America. PepisCo's
Trend No. 3: Robust growth in emerging markets
Fortunately for investors, growth in emerging markets overcompensated for Western stagnancy. PepsiCo's international units recorded double-digit sales growth in China and India, among other places. Coca-Cola's Pacific group saw sales volume increase by 7%, including 21% and 16% increases in China and South Korea, respectively. And sales volumes of Kimberly-Clark's personal-care products increased by 7% overseas, including double-digit growth in China, South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, and South Africa.
Investors learned three lessons this earnings season. First, strong brands protect against commodity price inflation, as demonstrated by Coca-Cola's ability to share cost increases with its customers. Second, companies with global sales portfolios can increase aggregate sales despite regional economic stagnation. And third, the smartest companies are already exploiting the accelerating eastward economic reorientation that is well under way.
The stocks mentioned in this article are important global economic players. If you're interested in tracking their performance, add them to your watchlist.