By Joseph Carson, former chief economist AllianceBernstein
Based on the preliminary data from the GDP report, operating profits fell roughly 10% in Q1 relative to Q4. A decline of that magnitude would drop aggregate company profits back to the Q1 2021 level, or nearly $300 billion below the record level of Q4 2021.
The plunge in operating profits reflects a sharp drop in margins. Real operating profit margins for Non-Financial Companies hit a record high of 15.9% in Q2 2021, dropped to 15.2% in Q4, and probably fell 100 to 150 basis points in Q1 2022. To be sure, Q1 earnings reports from large companies such as Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target confirm a sharp contraction in operating margins due to rising input costs.
More margin contraction lies ahead, especially if the Fed successfully squeezes inflation to 2%, down from 8%, and limits any significant fallout in the labor markets. For reported consumer price inflation to drop 600 basis points over the next year or so, producer prices for many companies involved in production and distribution would drop twice as much, if not more. And if overall labor costs are unchanged, the hit to profit margins, or the ratio of profits from sales after all expenses, will be significant.
Past cyclical slowdowns offer some perspective on significant margin contraction when monetary policy simultaneously slows demand and price inflation. For example, in 2000, consumer price inflation dropped 200 basis points, but producer prices for finished goods and intermediae materials fell between 600 and 1000 basis points. That dropped triggered the most significant cyclical contraction in real profit margins (700 basis points).
The potential disruption to business operations in 2022 is more significant than in 2000 because the Fed faces a bigger inflation problem. That means a substantial decline in operating margins is the most considerable risk to the equity market. Investors forewarned.