SP 500 Corporate Profits Leave Little Recession Doubt

By: Paul Kasriel | Tue, Jul 29, 2008
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Are we in a recession or are we not? The debate goes on. Take a look at the year-over-year change in operating profits of the S&P 500 corporations (see Chart 1). Profits have declined for three consecutive quarters through the first quarter of this year. Given reports of second-quarter profits to date and estimates of those corporate profits to be reported, it is a good bet that year-over-year profits will be down for four consecutive quarters. The data series in Chart 1 only goes back to the first quarter of 1989. But these limited data points suggest that the current behavior of corporate profits is signaling a recession. The data for year-over-year changes in reported S&P 500 profits (see Chart 2) start in the first quarter of 1965. The message is the same - current corporate profit behavior is consistent with past behavior in periods of recession.

Chart 1

Chart 2

Now, the nice thing about corporate profit data is that they do not get revised as do a lot of other data that go into the recession decision. (I suppose that there might be an exception to this when it comes to the profit data associated with Fannie and Freddie!) With the S&P 500 profits data there is no debate as to whether the Commerce Department is using a correct measure of prices to deflate nominal data. If Ben Stein wants to continue arguing that the U.S. economy has not yet slipped into a recession, as he did in Sunday's New York Times, so be it. In the meantime, those who are paying attention to the behavior of corporate profits continue to win Ben Stein's money.



Paul Kasriel

Author: Paul Kasriel

Paul L. Kasriel
Director of Economic Research
The Northern Trust Company
Economic Research Department
Positive Economic Commentary
"The economics of what is, rather than what you might like it to be."
50 South LaSalle Street, Chicago, Illinois 60675

Paul Kasriel

Paul joined the economic research unit of The Northern Trust Company in 1986 as Vice President and Economist, being named Senior Vice President and Director of Economic Research in 2000. His economic and interest rate forecasts are used both internally and by clients. The accuracy of the Economic Research Department's forecasts has consistently been highly-ranked in the Blue Chip survey of about 50 forecasters over the years. To that point, Paul received the prestigious 2006 Lawrence R. Klein Award for having the most accurate economic forecast among the Blue Chip survey participants for the years 2002 through 2005. The accuracy of Paul's 2008 economic forecast was ranked in the top five of The Wall Street Journal survey panel of economists. In January 2009, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes cited Paul as one of the few who identified early on the formation of the housing bubble and foresaw the economic and financial market havoc that would ensue after the bubble inevitably burst. Through written commentaries containing his straightforward and often nonconsensus analysis of economic and financial market issues, Paul has developed a loyal following in the financial community. The Northern's economic website was listed as one of the top ten most interesting by The Wall Street Journal. Paul is the co-author of a book entitled Seven Indicators That Move Markets.

Paul began his career as a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He has taught courses in finance at the DePaul University Kellstadt Graduate School of Business and at the Northwestern University Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Paul serves on the Economic Advisory Committee of the American Bankers Association.

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