This could be one of those not-so-terrible, 1998-style profits recessions

Corporate profits have been lacklustre lately, with growth flattening out and turning negative.

Declining profits typically signal that an economic recession is in our midst. But not always.

More and more analysts are coming out arguing that this could be one of those corporate profits recessions that don’t coincide with economy-wide recessions.

“Profits recessions are usually associated with recessions for the economy as a whole, so the data are certainly attention-grabbing,” High Frequency Economics’ Jim O’Sullivan writes. “There have been exceptions, however — most notably the 1998 period we have been highlighting as fairly analogous to the current time.”

“Back then, global growth and exports weakened significantly, oil and other commodity prices fell sharply and the dollar surged, yet overall U.S. growth remained solid,” he added. “Strength in domestic demand offset weakness in foreign demand, as we illustrate in the chart…”

This is not a new story, but certainly one worth repeating.

Indeed, the bulk of the weakness in earnings is attributable to the low oil prices and the strong dollar. If you were to exclude these impacts, earnings are actually still growing.

O’Sullivan reminds us that while low oil prices are bad for oil companies, they’re positive for consumers.

“In effect, the drop in oil prices represents a transfer of income from the business sector — domestic and foreign — to the consumer sector,” he said.

Even the strong dollar comes with some offsetting positive effects.

For O’Sullivan, we’re reliving a 1998-style profits recession that came and went without the economic recession.

“We expect that pattern to be repeated this time; it has been thus far,” he said. “Of course, overall growth is lower now than it was back then, but the potential growth rate is lower as well. We expect the unemployment rate to keep falling.”

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