Photo: AFP/Don Emmert
Photo: AFP/Don Emmert

Investors are waiting for guidance from the US-China trade negotiations, but most of all they are waiting for indications of how the economic disruptions of the past few months will affect earnings.

The slightest hint of squishier earnings guidance provokes brutal punishment. Wednesday it was telecom providers, today retailers. Fragile business models make most US market leaders risky. That’s why I don’t think a dovish Fed is enough to sustain a market rally.

Department stores led declines today, with Target bringing up the rear in the S&P 100 (-4%) and department stores taking the bottom slots in S&P 500 performance – Macy’s (-19%), L Brands (-7%), Kohls (-7%), Nordstrom (-5.4%).

Airlines took yet another beating, with American Airlines down 6.2%. It’s all about pricing power. Consumers are still spending, with real personal consumption expenditures up 1.9% year-on-year as of November, and more workers are earning a paycheck. Consumer debt service comprises the lowest percentage of personal income since the data were collected.

Yet consumer names have been battered. Apartment real estate investment trusts face falling rents, airlines face passenger pushback on price, aging brands face competition from cheaper generics, and tech companies face resistance to overpriced products, for example, Apple.

Roughly two-thirds of the top 50 S&P 500 companies (ranked by earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) face a serious challenge to their business models.

Top 50 earners

The complete annotated ranking is shown below. Economic growth is not the only issue worrying the stock market. Most of the market leaders are aging monopolies that risk losing their grip on customers.

The biggest exception to this rule is Amazon, which is doing most of the disrupting. But the fact that Amazon is able to disrupt everyone else depends on the willingness of Amazon shareholders to live without earnings. It now trades at around 110 times trailing earnings. Netflix trades at 95 times trailing earnings.

Deflation and value destruction are bad for equity markets. Amazon eats the retail market, and the department stores crash, along with CVS, and the REITs that own the properties from which the retailers rent.

Huawei crushes Apple in the Chinese market. Sprint, T-mobile and even more aggressive discounters erode the earnings of AT&T and Verizon. Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, General Mills, Campbell’s and Kraft-Heinz have to sell their products on an Amazon web page that conveniently flashes an ad for a generic alternative.

Taken together, companies with challenged business models generate nearly two-thirds of the earnings among the top 50 members of the S&P 500.