By David Randall
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Judging by conference calls from the latest earnings season, U.S. companies and analysts have dropped their preoccupation with Washington and shifted their focus to automation aimed at defending record profit margins.
Executives or analysts brought up automation on 48 third-quarter earnings calls, according to a Reuters analysis of transcripts since Oct. 1., compared with just 8 calls mentioning U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mentions of Trump on earnings calls have declined for the year, from a high of 126 calls between April and May, while discussions of automation have increased.
The focus on automation reflects growing concern among executives and analysts about rising labor costs, fund managers said, with jobless claims this month hitting their lowest level since March 1973.
After Trump's November 2016 election victory, hopes ran high among corporate executives that his campaign promises aimed at benefiting U.S. companies would turn into reality soon after he took office in late January.
But the Trump Administration has yet to pass healthcare, infrastructure or corporate tax cut bills that analysts had predicted would be in place by the end of this year.
"You've got a situation where companies are more confident in investing in technology rather than human capital because they know it will come with a fixed cost and may do the job just as well, if not better," said Steve Chiavarone, a portfolio manager at Federated Investors in New York.
Even years after the 2007-2009 financial crisis, executives are still reluctant to make investments that will eat into their profit margins, Chiavarone added.
The profit margin of the benchmark S&P 500 hit a record of nearly 11 percent in the second quarter, the highest since at least 1993, according to Yardeni Research.
Companies across industries have highlighted investments in automation this quarter that aim to defend or improve their margins.
Shoemaker Skechers USA Inc <SKX.N> told analysts that it had already bought land for a new distribution center but was still planning what kind of automation it will use there.
Clearwater Paper Corp <CLW.N> said that an automation project at its Elwood, Illinois facility was saving the company approximately $18 million a year. And SunTrust Banks Inc <STI.N> said that it was testing automation in more aspects of its business.
That investment focus has also prompted investors to pile into the companies that develop the automations themselves.
The $1.5 billion ROBO Global Robotics and Automation Index ETF <ROBO.O>, which holds companies like IPG Photonics Corp <IPGP.O>, Cognex Corp <CGNX.O> and Rockwell Automation Inc <ROK.N>, has gained nearly 40 percent for the year to date, compared with a 14.2 percent gain in the S&P 500.
Barry James, co-portfolio manager of the $3.1 billion James Golden Rainbow fund <GLRBX.O>, said his expectations for meaningful U.S. legislation passing this year or next has narrowed with Trump and some members of his own Republican Party increasingly at odds.
Given the climate in Washington, it makes sense for companies to invest more in areas like automation that will increase productivity without posing much risk, James said.
"You could say that we have a divided government now, even though there's 'Republican' behind the names of all the people who run it," James said. "Washington looks like it is going to be less of a factor moving forward."
(Reporting By David Randall; Editing by Jennifer Ablan and Meredith Mazzilli)