Malcolm Graham
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Malcolm Graham in Trading psychology,

The high-flying health-care sector is now slowing dramatically

Only telecom-services companies are projected to accelerate profit growth in the current quarter

Bloomberg News/Landov
The S&P 500 health-care sector posted the fastest growth in earnings per share a year ago. But no longer.
(This is the first in a two-part series on earnings-season results. The second part will focus on the consumer-discretionary sector of the S&P 500, which has had the biggest increase in earnings per share for the third quarter.)

“Quarterly earnings are random events.”

That’s what Ralph Segall said to me in a recent interview. Segall is chief investment officer of Chicago-based Segall Bryant & Hamill, which has about $10 billion in assets under management.

There’s no arguing with that statement because even a stellar company can have a “messy” quarter, with perhaps a one-time asset impairment, cost-cutting write-down, regulatory fine or even a series of events that wipe out profits.

That’s why it’s useful to focus on sales growth when trying to gauge a company’s success over short periods.

If you take a top-down approach to selecting stocks, earnings trends appear, helping you spot sectors and then individual stocks that may be worth your time as you consider where to invest your money.

Earnings season is almost over. Through Tuesday, 456 companies in the S&P 500 Index SPX, -1.40% had reported quarterly results, according to S&P Capital IQ analyst Lindsey Bell. The energy sector dragged down the performance of the index, which is expected by analysts to show a 1.6% decline in third-quarter earnings, compared with growth of 9.2% a year earlier.

Here are estimated EPS growth rates for the third quarter, along with those of the previous four quarters:

S&P 500 SectorEPS growth - Q3 2015EPS growth - Q2 2015EPS growth - Q1 2015EPS growth - Q4 2014EPS growth - Q3 2014
Consumer Discretionary16.1%10.5%8.5%13.0%8.3%
Health Care15.0%14.7%21.4%24.2%16.2%
Telecom. Services14.6%11.8%2.1%8.7%8.5%
Information Technology4.6%6.2%9.1%17.3%8.0%
Consumer Staples-2.0%1.7%4.3%0.8%6.0%
S&P 500-1.6%0.1%3.2%7.8%9.2%
Source: S&P Capital IQ
Here are EPS growth rates that analysts expect for the fourth quarter, along with the actual growth rates from the fourth quarter of 2014:
S&P 500 SectorEstimated EPS growth - Q4 2015Actual EPS growth - Q4 2014
Telecom. Services17.9%8.7%
Consumer Discretionary9.7%13.0%
Health Care7.5%24.2%
Consumer Staples-3.7%0.8%
Information Technology-4.0%17.3%
S&P 500-3.7%7.8%
Source: S&P Capital IQ