Why US Profits Have Soared amid Slow Economic Gains

Joseph G. Carson

There seems to be a disconnect between US corporate earnings and the state of the economy these days. Aggregate profits are growing at a blistering pace, although the economic growth remains relatively modest.

You can see this in preliminary data on third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP), which shows that US operating profits rose to $2.04 trillion, according to our analysis. That’s an annualized gain of 22% over the second quarter of 2011 and 11.3% ahead of the third quarter of 2010.

Profits are even more impressive when we look back to the start of the economic recovery in mid-2009. Since then, US operating profits have posted a cumulative gain of 61.6%—10 points higher than the postwar average (Display). This wasn’t just the result of high earnings abroad: earnings from domestic operations alone have jumped 70%, 13 points higher than the average in previous recoveries. Yet, over the same period, the cumulative growth of nominal GDP has been 9.7%—less than half the average of the six recoveries in the past 50 years.

A Robust Profit Cycle in a Weak RecoveryHow are companies managing to boost profitability so much amid such weak economic conditions? I think there are two key explanations: improved productivity and low interest rates.

After a recession, companies often improve profitability by raising prices higher than unit labor costs. Labor cost growth tends to be restrained in the initial stages of recovery because companies aren’t yet hiring many new workers. In the current recovery, price increases have been running at a relatively modest 1.8% per year, but the job market remains so soft that the cumulative rate of price increases has exceeded the change in unit labor costs by five percentage points—the widest gap in 50 years.

Low interest rates have helped by reducing capital costs. Net interest payments of nonfinancial companies fell to an estimated $100 billion (annualized) in the third quarter of 2011, from about $155 billion at the start of the recovery.

Nonfinancial companies now have the highest profit margins since the 1960s. According to the GDP data, inflation-adjusted profit margins reached about 15% in the third quarter—a record increase of nearly six points since the recovery began.

It will be tough to match these gains next year. If the job market picks up, the gap between prices and labor costs will almost certainly narrow. And even though interest rates are likely to stay low, US companies won’t benefit much more, because capital costs have already fallen sharply. But we still forecast that US operating profits should rise by 8% to 10% in 2012—a much healthier clip than the prevailing economic gloom might lead you to believe.

Joseph G. Carson is US Economist and Head of Global Economic Research at AllianceBernstein.

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