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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (MarketWatch)—Might a recession be averted after all? The odds that it might got a major boost earlier this week, when the Conference Board reported its index of leading economic indicators rose in March, breaking a three-month downtrend.

The Conference Board concluded the economy for the rest of this year would experience “slow, although not slowing, growth.”

Even so, corporate profits remain in a serious earnings recession that shows no signs of abating. Even if Wall Street analysts’ forecasts are correct (they’re usually too optimistic), earnings per share for the S&P 500 SPX, +0.00% over the four quarters through the end of March will be 16.2% below than where they were in the third quarter of 2014.
Furthermore, those forecasts (if correct) will show that the first three months of 2016 are the fourth consecutive quarter of lower year-over-year earnings for the S&P 500. The last time that happened was in 2008 and 2009, and I need not remind you of the Great Recession that accompanied that earnings downturn.

Why wouldn’t the same thing be happening now?

Realizing that “this time is different” are the four most dangerous words in the investment lexicon, I searched the historical record for any prior instances of an earnings recession that wasn’t accompanied by an economic recession. Surprisingly, I found several.

This time might not be all that different, after all.

Take a look at the chart at the top of this page, which plots corporate profits since 1980; economic recessions are shaded. Notice that while economic recessions are reliably accompanied by earnings recessions, the reverse isn’t always the case.

One stark example occurred between the third quarter of 1985 and the fourth quarter of 1986, during which total corporate profits fell by 26%. Yet, as you can see from the chart, a recession was nowhere in sight.

Perhaps even more surprising is what happened earlier this century: Corporate profits bottomed out in the fourth quarter of 2000 and thereafter began to rise at an impressive pace. Just one quarter later, they were already 5% higher. And, yet, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a recession began in March of 2001—after corporate profits had begun growing.

Why might the current earnings recession be one of these occasions in which an economics recession doesn’t occur? One obvious possible explanation is the extent to which recent quarters’ earnings losses have been concentrated in just one sector: energy.

After excluding that sector, Standard & Poor’s data reveal that earnings per share in the first quarter would be at an all-time high. This means the recent earnings recession is far different than those in the past in which earnings declined across all sectors—as they did, for example, in 2008 and 2009.

To be sure, this doesn’t guarantee that a bear market isn’t imminent. As the historical record also shows, many past bear markets have occurred unaccompanied by a broad economic downturn.

But you should think again if you were bearish on stocks because you believed the recent earnings recession would inevitably lead to an economic recession.

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