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S&P 500 Likely to Report Highest Earnings Growth in More Than 10 Years in Q1

Earnings

By John Butters  |  April 9, 2021

As of today, the S&P 500 is expected to report (year over-year) earnings growth of 24.5% for the first quarter. Given that most S&P 500 companies report actual earnings above estimates, what is the likelihood the index will report actual growth in earnings of 24.5% for the quarter?

Based on the five-year average improvement in earnings growth during each earnings season due to companies reporting positive earnings surprises, it is likely the index will report earnings growth of at least 28% for the first quarter, which would be the highest earnings growth reported by the S&P 500 in more than 10 years.

When companies in the S&P 500 report actual earnings above estimates during an earnings season, the overall earnings growth rate for the index increases because the higher actual EPS numbers replace the lower estimated EPS numbers in the calculation of the growth rate. For example, if a company is projected to report EPS of $1.05 compared to year ago EPS of $1.00, the company is projected to report earnings growth of 5%. If the company reports actual EPS of $1.10 (a $0.05 upside earnings surprise compared to the estimate), the actual earnings growth for the company for the quarter is now 10%, five percentage points above the estimated growth rate (10% - 5% = 5%).

Over the past five years, actual earnings reported by S&P 500 companies have exceeded estimated earnings by 6.9% on average. During this same period, 74% of companies in the S&P 500 have reported actual EPS above the mean EPS estimate on average. As a result, from the end of the quarter through the end of the earnings season, the earnings growth rate has typically increased by 4.6 percentage points on average (over the past five years) due to the number and magnitude of positive earnings surprises.

If this average increase is applied to the estimated earnings growth rate at the end of Q1 (March 31) of 23.8%, the actual earnings growth rate for the quarter would be 28.4% (23.8% + 4.6% = 28.4%). If the S&P 500 reports year-over-year growth in earnings of 28.4% in Q1, it would mark the highest (year-over-year) earnings growth rate reported by the index since Q3 2010 (34.0%).

S&P 500 Earnings Growth End of Qtr estimate vs actual

However, during the past three quarters (Q2 2020 through Q4 2020), actual earnings reported by S&P 500 companies have exceeded estimated earnings by 19.0% on average. During these three quarters, 82% of companies in the S&P 500 have reported actual EPS above the mean EPS estimate on average. As a result, from the end of the quarter through the end of the earnings season, the earnings growth rate has increased by 13.8 percentage points (on average) due to the number and magnitude of positive earnings surprises over these past three quarters.

If this average increase is applied to the estimated earnings growth rate at the end of Q1 (March 31) of 23.8%, the actual earnings growth rate for the quarter would be 37.6% (23.8% + 13.8% = 37.6%). If the S&P 500 reports year-over-year growth in earnings of 37.6% in Q1, it would mark the highest year-over-year earnings growth rate reported by the index since Q2 2010 (41.5%).

Of the 21 S&P 500 companies that have reported actual earnings for Q1 2021 to date, 81% have reported actual EPS above the mean EPS estimate. In aggregate, actual earnings reported by these 21 companies have exceeded estimated earnings by 9.8%. Thus, at this very early stage of the Q1 earnings season, the number of companies reporting positive earnings surprises is trending closer to the number of the previous three quarters, while the magnitude of the positive earnings surprises is trending closer to the five-year average. Since March 31, the earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 has improved by 0.7 percentage points (to 24.5% from 23.8%).

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John Butters

Vice President, Senior Earnings Analyst, Investor Relations

Mr. John Butters is Vice President and Senior Earnings Analyst at FactSet. His weekly research report, “Earnings Insight,” provides analysis and commentary on trends in corporate earnings data for the S&P 500 including revisions to estimates, year-over-year growth, performance relative to expectations, and valuations. He is a widely used source for the media and has appeared on CNBC, Fox Business News, and the Business News Network. In addition, he has been cited by numerous print and online publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New York Times, MarketWatch, and Yahoo! Finance. Mr. Butters has over 15 years of experience in the financial services industry. Prior to FactSet in January 2011, he worked for more than 10 years at Thomson Reuters (Thomson Financial), most recently as Director of U.S. Earnings Research (2007-2010).

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