U.S. companies are finding it more difficult to grow their revenue now than at just about any time since the financial crisis.
Second-quarter revenue growth for companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index is expected to be just 2.2 percent compared with an average 7.3 percent quarterly increase since the fourth quarter of 1998, according to Thomson Reuters data based on Wall Street analysts' forecasts. Take out the supercharged sales of Apple Inc and the picture is even weaker - with growth of only 1.9 percent for the current period.
The lowered expectations are a result of the euro zone crisis hurting demand from Europe, the impact of a slowdown in major developing economies such as China, Brazil and India, and recent signs of weakness in the United States.
Just last year, S&P 500 revenue growth was in double-digit territory, at 11.1 percent in the third quarter following an even bigger 13.6 percent in the second quarter. Revenue growth in the first quarter of this year came in at 5 percent.
Slowing revenue growth has wider implications for the U.S. and global economies. Companies are less likely to hire and more likely to fire to curb costs so that they can reach their earnings targets. Second-quarter earnings expectations for the S&P 500 are for growth of 6.7 percent, and 5.8 percent excluding Apple.
While the U.S. economy remains anemic, its relative strength compared with Europe, and the lack of a big bright alternative for investment in Asia, may provide some protection for the American workforce when any companies do slash jobs. The savagery of cuts during the financial crisis also doesn't give many companies a lot of slack to take out.
The U.S. manufacturing sector is also stronger than most other parts of the economy, with S&P 500 industrials' second-quarter sales expected to be up 6.6 percent from a year ago. The weakest sectors are energy, expected to see a 12.6 percent decline in sales in the second quarter, and telecommunications, seen up 3.2 percent.
"What we were looking for to happen in midyear was for emerging markets and Asian growth to bottom out, and that would provide some improvement in revenues in the second half," said Barry Knapp, managing director of equity research at Barclays Capital in New York.
"That's looking a bit questionable right now. Clearly the biggest trade bloc in the world - the euro zone - has not stabilized as of yet. The Asian export sector, the weakness you see there, is undoubtedly related to that."
Even technology companies that had benefited from strong demand in Asia are feeling the pinch. This week, analysts at JPMorgan Chase lowered their earnings estimates and price targets for Google Inc, online retailer Amazon , and travel web company Priceline.com, among others.
JPMorgan noted Google will derive more than 50 percent of its 2012 gross revenue from international markets. It dropped its revenue estimates for Priceline by 3 percent for 2012, noting the company gets 60 percent of its bookings from Europe.
"We still expect to see consensus (estimates) move lower for many names as we approach 2Q earnings over the next 6 weeks," wrote JPMorgan analyst Doug Anmuth in his note.
The trend in overall earnings revisions is not encouraging. The four-week moving average of global earnings revisions turned negative for the first time since March, according to analysts at Credit Suisse. When that happens, the S&P tends to fall 2 percent in the month that follows, they wrote.
Estimates may still not have factored in the unstable state of overseas markets, Knapp said. China's central bank surprisingly cut interest rates on Thursday for the first time since the global financial crisis, as the country is set for its lowest rate of growth since 1999.
"It's yet another bit of a drag on these big global growth beneficiaries," Knapp said.
Among manufacturers though, there have been fewer signs of major stress. At an investor conference this week, officials from big U.S. industrials companies including Caterpillar Inc and 3M Co said they have not seen a sharp deterioration in European demand -- which they had expected to be weak -- but stand ready to cut back if things get worse.
3M Chief Financial Officer David Meline said at the meeting, "We have the flexibility should there be a significant downturn in the economy. We don't believe that to be the case right now."
SLOWING IN THE UNITED STATES
U.S. stocks appear to be pricing in more bad news. The S&P 500 index early this week briefly fell more than 10 percent from its April 2 intraday high, and has been under pressure for more than a month.
The index has recovered some of those losses in recent days, but has seen a big turnaround from the first three months of the year, when the S&P 500 rose 12 percent.
"The sentiment level is almost as sour as it was in March of '09. We don't have the panic we had in '09, but I think we certainly have fear and anxiety, and it comes through in looking at what people are doing with their money," said Hank Smith, chief investment officer at Haverford Trust Co in Philadelphia.
S&P 500 revenue projections for 2.2 percent second-quarter growth have come down since the latter part of last year. In October, second-quarter revenue growth was seen at 4.3 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Going forward, forecasts for revenue don't show any real signs of improving.
Thomson Reuters' revenue growth forecast for the S&P 500 is for 2.9 percent for the third quarter, 4.1 percent for the fourth quarter and 2.7 percent for the first quarter of 2013.
The S&P 500 energy sector is expected to see revenue declines at least through early next year, the data showed.
Much of that is related to expected weakness in energy demand from Europe and China. In the past week, Brent crude dropped below $100 a barrel for the first time since October. U.S. crude oil is trading near $83 a barrel.
Energy company projections have also been dampened by natural gas prices, which are near lows not seen in a decade.
To be sure, the majority of S&P 500 companies have repeatedly beaten analyst expectations, both in terms of revenue and earnings. Sixty-seven percent of companies beat profit expectations for the first quarter.
But the ongoing deterioration in estimates underscores the caution analysts and companies are expressing - and leads to some concerns that companies are setting goals low so they can look better when the results come out.
In the first quarter, some companies that exceeded estimates did not see their stock prices rise, because the bar was repeatedly lowered.
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