Insight: earnings season

This time last year, when Australia’s big companies opened their books for their annual inspection by shareholders, investors responded in a brutal way.

The annual ”profit-reporting season” (which began this week) stretched over about four weeks, but by the time it was finished, investors had wiped 6.5 per cent from the value of the sharemarket.

Why? They were clearly unimpressed with all the negative surprises.

In many cases, profits were worse than expected.

Investors had not even responded that badly to the state of corporate Australia’s books during the reporting season that coincided with the depths of the financial crisis in early 2009.

Then, only 4.3 per cent in value had been lost, even though the outlook for Australian companies was arguably more uncertain, given the sharemarket was still plummeting and had yet to bottom out.

So how will investors react this reporting season?

It’s an important question, particularly for super funds, which invest heavily in the sharemarket.

Since the crisis began in late 2007, it has evolved from a banking crisis to a sovereign debt and political crisis in many parts of the world, leading to a sharp slowdown in global growth.

In the past few months, global and Australian economic conditions have worsened, with some leading indicators suggesting profits for Australian companies could deteriorate further in coming months.

Analysts from Credit Suisse have found that, since the half-year reporting season in February and March, the number of local companies telling investors that their profits could be better than expected this year has been ”virtually non-existent”.

But many have been warning that their profits could be lower.

These so-called ”profit downgrades” have been occurring in parts of the economy uniquely linked to the economic cycle: metals and mining, construction and engineering, media, retailing and gambling stocks.

Analysts warn that, if we don’t want to see too much value wiped from shares this reporting season – a situation that would hurt Australia’s super funds – we will need to come to terms with the difficulties that policymakers in the US, Europe and Asia are facing.

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