Wall Street sanguine as it heads into worst earnings season in six years

By Reuters

Apr 08, 2015 05:35 AM EDT

Wall Street is greeting what is expected to be the worst earnings season since 2009 with a gigantic shrug.

Though there has been some selling in recent weeks, there's been no panic dumping of stocks, even though forecasts for S&P 500 first-quarter earnings have tumbled since Jan. 1, thanks to the surging dollar, falling oil prices and another severe winter. The earnings season unofficially kicks off Wednesday with results from aluminum company Alcoa (AA.N).

Among some key early results, JPMorgan Chase (JPM.N) is due to report next week along with other banks and General Electric (GE.N).

First-quarter S&P 500 earnings are projected to have declined by 2.8 percent from a year ago, which would make the quarter the worst for results since the third quarter of 2009, not long after the United States emerged from the Great Recession, according to Thomson Reuters data.

But investor sentiment has been boosted by optimism that the Federal Reserve will continue to delay its first interest rate hike in nearly a decade. The S&P 500 lost 1.7 percent in March but remains up 0.8 percent for the year so far.

"The market is holding up remarkably well... all in the face of earnings concerns and the fact that economic news is a little worse than expected," said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Boston Private Wealth in New York. "It speaks to people's expectations that the Federal Reserve is going to remain on hold at least until September, maybe a little longer."

S&P 500 earnings typically beat lowered analysts' expectations, and strategists said the unusually large drop in first-quarter forecasts sets a low bar for companies to surpass.

Energy is expected to take the biggest hit this earnings period, although analysts have cut projections for every sector.

The market is "not expecting much" from earnings this quarter, said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati, which means "the higher probability would be for an upside surprise."

From the first quarter of 2008 to the fourth quarter of 2014, the median difference between the initial earnings forecast in a quarter and the final result is a gain of 8.5 percentage points, Thomson Reuters data showed.

The drop in estimates has been well telegraphed, especially by U.S. companies themselves.

If earnings do come in along the lines predicted by analysts, stocks would look a bit pricey, but any positive surprises could result in shares being reasonably valued. The S&P 500's forward price-to-earnings ratio stands at 16.7, down from more than 17 in recent weeks but roughly where it was at the end of 2014. The historical average is 14.9, Thomson Reuters data showed.

Outlooks from S&P 500 companies are the most negative since the fourth quarter of 2013, according to Thomson Reuters data. Of the 128 outlooks from S&P 500 companies, 105 were negative and 17 were positive.

Among those 105 warnings on the quarter, at least 69 companies cited the stronger dollar as a headwind, making it the most common complaint, according to a Thomson Reuters analysis.

A stronger dollar tends to dampen profits for U.S. multinationals when overseas profits are translated back into dollars. The dollar gained 9 percent against a basket of currencies.DXY in the first quarter.

Priceline (PCLN.O) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ.N) were among companies with the most pronounced currency impact, the search showed.

"Our biggest short-term challenge is currency," Priceline's president and chief executive, Darren Huston, said in the company's Feb. 19 conference call, noting that more than 90 percent of Priceline's business is in its international brands.

Just a handful of companies pointed to this winter's weather, which brought heavy snowfall in parts of the country.

At least 11 companies cited lower oil prices as a negative, while 13 cited energy as a positive factor. No S&P 500 energy companies gave quarterly guidance, which is often the case, but big predicted declines in energy shares is the largest reason for the overall negative outlook.

S&P 500 energy earnings are projected to have dropped 64 percent from a year ago, Thomson Reuters data showed. U.S. oil prices are down about 50 percent since the end of June.

Without energy, S&P 500 earnings for the quarter are forecast to have risen 5.4 percent.

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