The odds go up for an earnings season stock-market dip

10/07/2010 12:44 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Disturbing background for the third quarter earnings season that starts this week raises the odds for a dip on earnings news over the next few weeks.

Wall Street analysts cut their estimates for 2011 earnings for the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 in September, according to Bloomberg. That’s the first decline in quarterly earnings estimates since June 2009.

The reduction isn’t big—the estimate for 2011 earnings declined to $95.17 in September from a high of $96.16 in August—but the shift in direction is likely to increase uncertainty and worry just as third quarter earnings season starts with announcements from PepsiCo (PEP) and Alcoa (AA) today, October 7. (PepsiCo reported earnings of $1.22 a share for the third quarter before the market opened today. That matched the consensus analyst estimate. Revenue came in slightly above consensus of $15.38 billion at $15.51 billion. But shares were down 3.4% as of 12:30 ET today because the company lowered guidance for the full year to $4.08-$4.12. Wall Street consensus had been at $4.17 for 2010.)

After an 8.8% gain on the S&P 500 index in September, investors will be looking for reasons this earnings season to take profits or to hang on in anticipation that the rally will continue. Disappointing guidance for 2011—if in their post-earnings remarks CEOs take the same direction as analysts—will certainly push the balance toward profit taking.

Especially since it looks like the quarter to quarter pattern is pointing in the same direction of slower earnings growth. Profits for the S&P 500 companies are projected to increase at a 23% year to year rate in the third quarter. That’s would be down from the 49% growth rate in the second quarter and the 52% rate in the first quarter of 2010.

Some investors will decide those numbers are evidence of a fatal slowdown in growth. In my opinion, while it’s clear that the U.S. economy has slowed/will slow in the second half of 2010s the drop in earnings growth is equally attributable to tougher year on year comparisons. Current earnings growth is lower than in quarters earlier in the year because those earlier quarters were being compared with truly terrible quarters for the economy in early 2009. More recent quarters are being compared with stronger quarters in 2009 that reflect the beginnings of the recovery. For example, the U.S. economy grew by 5% in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Although I think the decline in 2011 estimates raises the odds for an earnings season dip in stock prices, I also believe that any dip is likely to be limited. The decline in earnings projections for 2011 to $95.17 isn’t very large and it still leaves stocks very reasonably priced at just 12.1 times projected 2011 earnings. With earnings growth still projected at 15% for 2011 equities are still a good deal, especially with yields on competing investments in the bond market at such low levels.

The decline in analyst earnings projections wasn’t limited to U.S. stocks. Analysts cut 2011 earnings estimates in 20 of the world’s developed markets last month. Earnings estimates for London’s FSE 100 index, for example, have declined 4.9% since the beginning of May, according to Bloomberg.

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