On closer examination, though, there's no denying that something is downright fishy about the economy. Corporate profits for the S&P 500 have now declined for five straight quarters. More disturbing, and to our point about economic growth, top line revenues of S&P 500 companies have fallen for the past six.
It's not just struggling energy companies, or retailers shouldering these declines, both of whom it could be argued are not representative of the broader economy. In the former case, bulls would point to the nearly unprecedented fall in the price of oil, in the latter the shift to online shopping. But truth be told, the poor sales and earnings of major retailers like Macy's, Nordstrom, Walmart, Kohls, Ralph Lauren and Apple all take into account their online sales. So it's not just a shift to online shopping. There is something wrong with the consumer.
The issue is manifest in top line revenue of major banks like Citibank, JPMorgan and Bank of America. While their customer base is as corporate and institutional as consumer, top line revenues for each of these banks has fallen sequentially for the past five years. The banks are in effect shrinking themselves through expenditure reductions to keep cash flow positive.
But it's the consumer brands, like Colgate that are the most disturbing and highlight the structural weakness in the economy. Net sales for Colgate's products fell 7% last year - now bear in mind this is a company that makes consumer staples like toothpaste, mouthwash, soap, deodorant and household cleaners. Assuming for a moment that inflation is zero (if you buy that argument) the world's population is unquestionably growing. How can a company that markets consumer staples see shrinking sales in a growing world? And it's not that Colgate is somehow falling behind its competitors. After all, the stock trades at 47x trailing earnings and is at the top end of its 52-week trading range. Clearly, investors value the franchise.
As dreary as this picture might be, Colgate is not doing nearly as badly as America's largest consumer products company, Procter & Gamble. P&G has seen declining annual revenues, sequentially, for each of the past five years. Its revenues were fully 20% lower in 2015 than in 2012. P&G saw its sales decline last year alone by $10.9 billion. Pepsico's revenue fell by 5.4% last year, and came in $2.5 billion below its sales level of 2012. General Mills, another leading consumer products company, saw revenue decline last year by 6% vs. 2014. How is this all possible in a healthy economy?
Maybe this is what Bill Gross, Stan Druckenmiller, George Soros, Carl Icahn and other billionaire investors see that scares them so terribly about the economy and the stock market. After all, for revenues of major consumer brands to see continuing sales declines, something has definitely gone off track with the economy.