Monday, December 22, 2008

A Christmas Wish For Your 401(k) Account

Most people lost a good portion of their 401(k) this year, but will next year be any better? Most people would have to say yes, if for no other reason than it would be hard to comprehend anything being worse than 2008 was. Already analysts are predicting much stronger earning next year, but then we are hearing reports about how horrible this holiday has been, and how that is going to kill some companies. So can we expect a Christmas gift this year for our 401(k) and other retirement accounts? James Picerno from The Capital Spectator offers up his insight below.

U.S. corporate earnings have been under pressure for some time, based on reported operating earnings for the S&P 500. Indeed, the bloom fell off the rose a year ago, when S&P earnings took a dive in 2007's fourth quarter from the formerly plush levels.

A lower level of earnings has prevailed ever since, as our chart above shows. But bottom-up estimates (as per Standard & Poor's as of December 16) are decidedly upbeat for 2009. If the forecast proves accurate, by this time next year S&P 500 operating earnings will return to the record levels posted in 2007. If such an earnings rebound is coming, the S&P 500 looks inexpensive based on the forward earnings multiple of 10.6, as per the full-year 2009 earnings estimate of $83.44.

Reuters reports that a key source of the expected earnings turnaround next year will come from none other than the ailing financial sector. That would be no trivial rebound, considering the current depth of earnings red ink weighing on the financial sector. But that will give way to positive earnings next year, or so we're told.

Consumer discretionary sector earnings are also thought to be poised to soar next year, rising 46% for full-year 2009 earnings, based on bottoms-up predictions. That's nearly twice the S&P 500's predicted earnings rise. In fact, only the energy, industrials and materials sectors of the S&P 500 are expected to suffer lower earnings in '09 vs. this year. The other 7 sectors for the S&P are on track for higher elevations.

It sounds like just the holiday treat we've been waiting for. Yet we must be wary of analysts bearing gifts. Indeed, bottom-up analysts as a group tend to be more optimistic relative to top-down analysts. Even so, the top-down crowd sees earnings growth for next too. The high end of forecasts among top-down calls for a rich $100 for 2009 S&P earnings, vs. $60 on the low end for this group's prediction, The Wall Street Journal recently noted.

For what it's worth, your editor is also confident that next year's earnings for the S&P will rise above this year's dismal results. But that's like saying Wall Street's bloodbath won't be so bad in 2009 vs. the last few months.

One of the few bright spots about life after the apocalypse is that a rebound of sorts is virtually guaranteed. Timing is always a question, of course, but rebounds eventually arrive. But no one should confuse a bounce off the bottom as a sign that a return to trend is imminent for corporate earnings. The economic headwind promises to be quite stiff next year, and it remains to be seen who'll have the stamina and the savvy to weather the storm.

Yes, government stimulus will be an increasingly positive force as next year unfolds. But unless you're expecting miracles, it's best to keep the celebratory champagne on ice for the foreseeable future. It took us years to get into this mess, it'll take more than a 2 or 3 quarters to get us out. That doesn't preclude a bounce, but repairing the damage this time will take more than running the printing presses at full speed.

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