Evaluating Earnings Quality as Inflation Bites

Inflationary pressures are threatening corporate profitability. As third-quarter earnings season winds down, we’re gathering intelligence to identify companies that will have advantages sustaining quality earnings and margins amid rising prices.

Whether inflation will be transitory or longer lasting, companies will be affected in diverse ways. For equity investors who target high-quality businesses, inflation must now be a key variable in fundamental research of portfolio candidates and holdings.

Across sectors and around the world, inflation was prominent in recent earnings reports. Yet even as many companies beat expectations, share-price reactions were often lukewarm amid concerns that company forward guidance is clouded by inflation risk. For both growth and value investors, the following inflation-related themes that surfaced can help frame the challenges ahead.

Rising Wages: How Are Companies Navigating Higher Labor Costs?

Tight labor markets are pushing up wages in many sectors. While technology and automation can sometimes be deployed to help reduce labor costs, it’s usually a long process. Look for companies with creative plans to cope with labor costs. For example, one semiconductor manufacturer said it is recruiting more aggressively at entry-level positions to replace older, more expensive employees. Companies that choose this route must ensure that productivity and the quality of goods or services isn’t compromised by replacing experienced workers with more junior staff.

Rising wages mean companies must work harder to retain staff. Companies that are better at workforce retention and skills development may have an edge. To evaluate ‘softer’ corporate practices like these, investors should engage regularly with management teams.

Of course, labor is just one component of a company’s cost structure. In industries that are less labor intensive, companies should consider whether cheaper inputs and alternative raw materials are available to lower production costs. We’re also looking for evidence that manufacturing processes can be streamlined. Outsourcing can help trim costs in industries that haven’t done so yet.