Haver Analytics
Haver Analytics
| Dec 06 2022

Record Profit Margins Suggest It's Been A "Pain-Free" Tightening Cycle For Companies

"It ain't over until it's over," quoting Yogi Berra, but this has been a "painless" tightening cycle for companies. According to the profit data for nonfinancial companies, profit margins (adjusted for inflation) for the first three quarters of 2022 have averaged 15.6%, essentially matching last year's figure, which was the highest in 60 years.

In previous Fed tightening cycles aimed at slowing and reversing cyclical inflation forces, real profit margins declined, and by a lot. Declines of 200 to 500 basis points in real profit margins occurred during the tightening cycles of 1980, the 1990s, and the 2000s.

What makes this period different? For one, the rise in official rates, while significant in scale, up 400 basis points from the start of the year, is still far below the 6.3% rate of core inflation for the twelve months ending in October. And the nominal level of federal funds at 4% is still 500 basis points below the 9.2% growth in nominal GDP for the year ending in Q3 2022.

In short, the price increases have exceeded total unit costs for nonfinancial companies (including labor, materials, and credit borrowing). A 'pain-free" tightening cycle is not how inflation cycles end. In previous tightening cycles, companies felt the "pain" of higher interest rates, resulting in layoffs and cutbacks in spending.

In comments at the Brookings Institution, Fed Powell said, "my colleagues and I do not want to over-tighten... that's why we're slowing down and going to try to find our way to what is the right level is". As Yogi Berra said, "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going because you might not get there." Since the Fed does not know where they are going, how should investors know? Investors should expect a volatile 2023.

  • Joseph G. Carson, Former Director of Global Economic Research, Alliance Bernstein.   Joseph G. Carson joined Alliance Bernstein in 2001. He oversaw the Economic Analysis team for Alliance Bernstein Fixed Income and has primary responsibility for the economic and interest-rate analysis of the US. Previously, Carson was chief economist of the Americas for UBS Warburg, where he was primarily responsible for forecasting the US economy and interest rates. From 1996 to 1999, he was chief US economist at Deutsche Bank. While there, Carson was named to the Institutional Investor All-Star Team for Fixed Income and ranked as one of Best Analysts and Economists by The Global Investor Fixed Income Survey. He began his professional career in 1977 as a staff economist for the chief economist’s office in the US Department of Commerce, where he was designated the department’s representative at the Council on Wage and Price Stability during President Carter’s voluntary wage and price guidelines program. In 1979, Carson joined General Motors as an analyst. He held a variety of roles at GM, including chief forecaster for North America and chief analyst in charge of production recommendations for the Truck Group. From 1981 to 1986, Carson served as vice president and senior economist for the Capital Markets Economics Group at Merrill Lynch. In 1986, he joined Chemical Bank; he later became its chief economist. From 1992 to 1996, Carson served as chief economist at Dean Witter, where he sat on the investment-policy and stock-selection committees.   He received his BA and MA from Youngstown State University and did his PhD coursework at George Washington University. Honorary Doctorate Degree, Business Administration Youngstown State University 2016. Location: New York.

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