Lockdowns in 2021 Threaten to Slow First-Quarter Earnings Recovery

January 13, 2021 Updated: January 13, 2021

LONDON—A major chunk of the recovery in companies’ earnings expected in the first quarter is at risk of being pushed back further as lockdowns and mobility restrictions in several countries cloud hopes of a swifter economic recovery, investment banks said.

China announced lockdowns in four cities while European countries unveiled tighter and longer coronavirus restrictions on Jan. 13, denting back-to-normal hopes and sparking worries about further economic damage in 2021.

Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands indicated strict Covid-19 curbs would last into early February, and Italy said it would extend its state of emergency to the end of April. Japan also expanded a state of emergency in Tokyo, hurting the prospects of holding an already delayed Summer Olympics.

Those actions prompted words of caution from major investment banks. Goldman Sachs said signs of gloom were creeping in with, 48 percent of its clients expecting economic growth to undershoot expectations of 5.3 percent growth in 2021.

Analysts’ earnings estimates for the first quarter didn’t reflect the worry either—Europe is seen reporting a whopping 40 percent jump in profits, while the United States is forecast to see a 16 percent rise.

“We see risks of downward guidance this earnings season,” Bank of America’s equity strategist Savita Subramanian said in a note, highlighting a consensus on U.S. profits that points to just a 3 percent drop compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.

“While additional stimulus could provide upside risks, rising COVID cases suggest a more tepid recovery from here.”

There were some cracks appearing in expectations of a V-shaped bounceback in earnings, with the pace of upward revisions in global earnings estimates cooling down in recent weeks.

Still, U.S. and European companies were seen reporting profit growth of 20.8 percent and 38 percent respectively for 2021, according to Refinitiv data.

Vaccine rollouts have been a major reason for the rosy outlook picture.

“There is widespread hope that a COVID-19 vaccine rollout in 2021 can normalize the underlying real economy and increase earnings, employment, and margins,” said Steen Jakobsen, chief investment officer at investment bank Saxo.

“The risk is that new mutations of the virus will dilute our attempt to normalize our society with the first-generation vaccine.”

By Thyagaraju Adinarayan