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Here's how the big winter storm will play out in corporate earnings

A man walks along a street covered by snow during a winter storm in Washington.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
A man walks along a street covered by snow during a winter storm in Washington.

As a major winter storm barrels through the northeastern United States, publicly traded companies may be looking at their first-quarter profits.

The snow may melt by spring, but we'll be hearing about the storm for months to come as corporate executives blame it for missed earnings and praise it as a boon to their businesses.

Weather has become a boilerplate excuse for executives looking to explain dismal year-over-year growth. It makes sense: A winter storm that paralyzes a major metropolitan area over a weekend can have a big effect on a company's revenue for a quarter.

At the same time, many businesses can benefit from a foot of snow: A home improvement retailer may sell more snow shovels, and cold weather means people crank up the thermostats, which means good things for utilities.

When companies see profits or misses from weather-related events, they tell their investors about it in their earnings. CNBC looked at transcripts of earnings calls for the S&P 500 companies over the past five years. Notice how mentions of "weather" and "snow" tend to jump in the second calendar quarter: That's because executives are talking about how weather affected business the previous quarter, i.e., the period from January to March.

Weather can affect businesses in myriad ways on both the supply and demand side. In the first quarter of 2017, 110 companies in the S&P 500 index have talked about weather during their earnings calls. Of those, 70 percent also mentioned it in the same quarter last year.

Utilities are by far the most likely sector to mention weather — out of 28 companies in the group in the S&P 500, 21 said the word at some point during an earnings call this quarter. Because weather plays such an important role in demand for energy products, utility financials are often weather-adjusted. But that doesn't keep weather from coming up as an explanation.

"We believe the decline in weather-normalized gas sales for the year is due to the extreme weather conditions experienced over the past two years," said Daniel Cregg, CFO of Public Service Enterprise Group, on the utility company's February earnings call. "As much as it pains me to say, please enjoy this wonderful weather," added Chairman Ralph Izzo.

Retailers are often hit on the demand side, but suffer more when weather is worse. When New York has a foot of snow on the ground, shoppers simply stay at home (and they're less likely to shop online as well). Last quarter, companies like TJX said warmer weather helped.

Complaint front, coming through

On the other hand, it's not just cold weather and snow that can throw a wrench in the works. Unseasonably warm weather can mean fewer sales of winter coats, for example, and unpredictable swings are rarely good for business. This past February was the second warmest in history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This winter so far has been the sixth warmest on record.

O'Reilly Automotive said the lack of cold weather was a headwind in winter-sensitive markets, and Kroger said it saw none of the normal sales boosts from nasty "weather events."

"I always hate to use weather as an excuse," said Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen. "But we had absolutely no weather benefits this year."

Companies can also be hit on the supply side. Denise Morrison, president and CEO of Campbell Soup told investors in February that the company's carrot business had been affected by extreme weather in the West, but things were getting back on track.

"After experiencing quality issues last year due to execution and poor weather conditions in California, we've restored our carrot quality," she said in a Feb. 17 call.

Companies in the information technology, health-care, financials and real estate businesses are among the least likely to talk about weather in earnings calls. Telecom companies are also largely untouched by weather changes, though no sector can escape weather effects entirely.

Warm and wet weather are predicted to bring tropical diseases like Zika further north, medical experts say, and the seasons for transmission are likely to expand.

But as extreme as weather can be, people still need to go about their lives. Some corporate execs refrain from talking about weather as much as possible in their earnings calls. John Morikis, president and chief executive at Sherwin-Williams, is one of those.

"We've sworn [an] oath not to ever talk about weather again," he said in January. "We quite frankly insist that our people focus on how they improve their results, not report the weather."