Rising Business Costs and Consumer Inflation in Focus as Earnings Season Kicks Off

By Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'
October 11, 2021 Updated: October 11, 2021

As the third-quarter corporate earnings season gets underway this week, markets are about to get a sense of the degree to which rising business input costs were absorbed by firms and pulled down their bottom lines.

Nineteen S&P 500 firms report earnings this week starting with the big banks. According to Refinitiv IBES forecasts, profit growth is estimated to come in at 30 percent in the third quarter, down from 96 percent in the previous three-month period.

Increases in commodity costs, labor shortages and supply bottlenecks, and consumer price inflation will be a big part of the story as the corporate earnings season gets underway.

Queen’s College President Mohamed El-Erian wrote in an Oct. 10 Twitter post that, “with (non-transitory) cost #inflation currently exceeding price inflation, either profit margins will be eroded, or prices will rise faster, or some combination of both.”

Earnings results will provide a sense of the degree to which firms have been able to pass on rising costs to consumers in the form of higher prices. Consumer price inflation has surged in recent months, running well above the Fed’s 2 percent target.

“If they’re having to pay more and they’re unable to pass it on to end purchasers or consumers and it’s hitting profitability, that’s something that will be concerning,” said Holly MacDonald, chief investment officer at Bessemer Trust, according to The Wall Street Journal.

So far this year, banking giants JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have repeatedly raised their outlooks for expenses, with costs emerging as “a great wild card for the quarter and for the outlook” of the financial services sector, according to John McDonald, senior analyst for large-cap banks at Autonomous Research, who made the remarks to the Financial Times.

Setting the stage for this week’s earnings reports were weeks of debate around whether the inflationary surge is temporary or persistent. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen waded into the discussion last week, insisting it’s reasonable to view the current price spike as temporary even if it doesn’t abate within the next few months.

Biden administration officials and Federal Reserve policymakers have repeatedly characterized the current inflationary spell as transitory, though they have increasingly expressed concern about the risk of a deanchoring of inflationary expectations. That’s where confidence in the transitory narrative erodes and people start to believe and behave as if inflation will be far stickier than previously believed, impacting wage and price-setting behavior and potentially even sparking the kind of upward wage-price spiral that bedeviled the economy in the 1970s.

El-Erian told Bloomberg in an Oct. 1 interview that, in his view, the proper way to consider transitory versus persistent in the debate on price-hike durability is that inflation ceases to be temporary once there are changes to wage and price-setting behavior. El-Erian said he and many of his economist colleagues are seeing a shift in this regard.

“These behaviors are evolving, they are changing. Companies feel more confident to increase prices, because prices are going up everywhere,” he said.

Besides evidence of firms passing on higher prices to consumers and boosting wages to attract and retain workers at a time when the U.S. economy has a record-high number of job openings, there is also evidence of a rise in inflationary expectations, at least in a near-term horizon.

The New York Fed’s most recent consumer inflation expectations survey showed that short-term (one year ahead) and medium-term (three years ahead) inflation expectations both rose to record highs of 4 percent and 5.2 percent respectively.

Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'