What earnings season is saying about road ahead

A messy earnings season has given investors some discomfiting things to mull.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 30, 2013 2:49PM

Stock investor © Tom Grill/CorbisCNBCBy Jeff Cox


As corporate earnings season passes the halfway point, results have been good enough but not particularly good, signaling that a hoped-for strong surge in the second half could be elusive.


In fact, were it not for a robust financial sector, profit on the S&P 500 ($SPX) would be tracking negative 1.6%, according to Bank of America (BAC) Merrill Lynch consensus estimates.


That two-thirds of companies are beating estimates seems almost beside the point: The Wall Street view had gotten so low ahead of the reporting season that anything fogging the mirror would have been an upside surprise.


Instead, investors have been left to sort through the numbers to find companies that stand out.


"The trajectory of estimates had been sharply negative leading into the reporting season, enabling companies to beat a lowered bar," Adam Parker, chief market strategist at Morgan Stanley, said in an earnings analysis. "Nevertheless, fundamentals appear to be in focus as the market is differentiating between companies, with misses being punished and beats being rewarded."


The earnings scorecard shows nearly 300 companies on the S&P 500 reporting, with 66% topping Wall Street expectations.


However, just four of the index's 10 sectors are seeing earnings growth, with financials boasting a whopping 24.7% increase and materials showing an ugly 11.7% loss. Of the six positive sectors, industrials are barely above water and healthcare is tracking at less than a 2% increase, according to S&P Capital IQ.


Actual revenue growth has been even less attractive.


Sales have grown just 1.7% on an annualized basis, though about 56% of companies are beating expectations. Excluding financials, the revenue gain is just 1.2%.


The outlook is not particularly encouraging, either.


Of the 54 companies that had provided guidance through Friday, 20 were negative, 14 positive and 11 in-line -- particularly troubling considering that current expectations are for 4.9% third-quarter growth and 10.8% in the fourth quarter.


Overall, earnings per share for the entire index have risen to $27.13, 1% higher than projections at the start of the season.


Companies that have beaten on both earnings and sales are outperforming the S&P 500 by 2.3 percentage points in the five days after reporting, BofAML said. Companies missing on both have under-performed by 5 percentage points in the five days after and by 8.4 percentage points since the beginning of earnings season.


Conventional wisdom, though, that investors would focus more on sales than profits has not necessarily held up.


"Earnings may be more of a focus than sales, as performance spreads generated by earnings beats and misses have been more pronounced than those based on top-line surprises," Savita Subramanian, equity and quant strategist at BofAML, said in a note.


One telling factor about investor psychology is that earnings misses have been punished far more than beats have been rewarded, likely in reaction to a failure to beat such modest expectations.


Companies that have fallen short of Wall Street's view have fallen an average 2.56% on their reporting day, Bespoke Investment Group said, while those that have beaten gained just 1.34%.


One interesting bit of trivia: Information technology has shown a 6.1% decrease in earnings yet has the highest beat rate at 71.3%.


So while the market's path of least resistance has been clearly higher, a messy earnings season has given investors some discomfiting things to mull.


"Consumer discretionary and technology stocks that have missed estimates have gotten crushed," Bespoke said in a report. "Investors were clearly expecting a lot out of these sectors heading into earnings season, and companies that have not lived up to expectations have been taken to the woodshed."


More from CNBC

Jul 31, 2013 7:20AM
The estimates are lowered each quarter and then we hear that stocks are beating their estimates without mention of the lowered numbers.  Then we hear we are in a recovery because of how great the market is doing.  Seems like a  scheme to me.
Jul 31, 2013 7:55AM

Earnings should be increasing at least as fast as M2.  i.e.  11%.   The fact that they are not point to slowing economy, not one gaining.   We shall see in the GDP numbers.   If the GDP numbers come in at less that 1.8% I'd say look out below.  There is a real chance they could come in 1.4-1.6 range.


And while dollars grow, unit shipments continue to fall.  Business appears to have been wise to build up cash reserves.

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