Fourth-quarter earnings growth for S&P 500 companies keeps looking a little better, but the outlook for the first quarter has fallen deeper into the red, which would be the first negative showing in nearly three years, if it holds.
Meanwhile, the percentage growth in the latest quarter is on track to be double-digits for a fifth-straight quarter, but it is only a little more than half the average of the first three quarters of the year.
FactSet publishes a “blended growth” percentage change for earnings per share for the S&P 500, representing a blend of year-over-year growth of actual results already reported and the average estimates of surveyed analysts of upcoming results.
With about two-thirds of the S&P 500 companies having reported results through Friday, the overall blended EPS growth consensus for the S&P 500 nudged up to 13.3% from 12.4% a week ago, and from 10.6% at the start of earnings season, according to FactSet. Of the 11 S&P 500 sectors, EPS growth of 8 sectors are above what they were at the start of earnings season. See Earnings Watch.
The current growth estimate compares with the average reported growth of 25.5% for the first three quarters of the year, and would represent the lowest expected growth since 7.3% in the third quarter of 2017. And for the first time since Q3 2017, the growth isn’t expected to be unanimous: The utilities sector is the only one of 11 S&P 500 sectors expected to report an earnings decline.
The expected growth is also down from the 16.31% that was expected at the end of the third quarter, as concerns over the negative effects of a strengthening U.S. dollar, rising input costs and worries over a trade the trade war with China have pulled down analyst projections.
“Those worries, especially trade concerns, are likely to produce an earnings season that is softer than the norm for this bull market, according to our analysis; while most companies are likely going to beat their estimates, a below-normal amount of them are likely to do so,” wrote Brian Reynolds, analyst at Canaccord Genuity in a recent note to clients.
The S&P 500 index SPX, +0.07% tumbled 14% during the fourth quarter, compared with a total 9% gain for the first three quarters of the year. It has advanced 3.6% since earnings season kicked off ahead of the Jan. 14 open, through morning trade Friday.
So far, the beat rate has been in line with historical averages. J.P. Morgan equity strategists said Friday that about 71% of the companies reporting results have beat EPS expectations.
Over the past five years, John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet, said about 71% of S&P 500 companies beat EPS expectations.
Don’t miss: Citigroup kicks off fourth-quarter earnings season with a revenue miss.
What might be of more concern to investors, is that the blended EPS estimate for the first quarter continues to worsen, to a decline of 1.9% from a drop of 0.9% last week. That’s a stark change from estimates for growth of 1.9% on Jan. 11 and of 6.7% on Sept. 30.
If the decline holds, if would be the first since the second quarter of 2016, when EPS fell 2.5% to mark a fifth-straight quarter of declines. Through Friday, seven of 11 sectors are now expected to suffer EPS declines, with energy XLE, -0.46% information technology XLK, +0.58% and XLB, -0.09% expected to show the most weakness.
Although its common to see forward EPS estimates fall as a quarter progresses, the cuts for the first quarter have been more pronounced than usual this year. Butters said he during the past 20 quarters, the average decline in the blended EPS estimate during the first month of a quarter has been just 1.6%.
The following table shows what analysts expected through Friday in terms of year-over-year EPS growth for the S&P 500 and each of the S&P 500’s 11 sectors for the fourth and first quarters, as well as the change in estimates since Jan. 11 and Sept. 30.
|Index/sector||Blended Q4 EPS growth estimate on Feb. 8 (decline)||Blended Q4 EPS growth estimate on Jan. 11 (decline)||Blended Q4 EPS growth estimate on Sept. 30||Q1 EPS growth estimate on Feb. 8 (decline)||Q1 EPS growth estimate on Jan. 11 (decline)||Q1 EPS growth estimate on Sept. 30|
(Citigroup Inc. C, -1.27% unofficially kicked off earnings-reporting season before the Jan. 14 open.)
Revenue growth is also expected to decelerate, with the FactSet blended growth estimate of 6.9% well below the average of 9.7% for the first three quarters of 2018, and the slowest growth since the third quarter of 2017’s 6.2% rise. Like earnings, the fourth-quarter estimate has improved slightly over the past week, while the first-quarter outlook has slowed.
The following table details what analysts expected through Friday in terms of year-over-year revenue growth for the S&P 500 and each of the S&P 500’s 11 sectors for the fourth and first quarters, as well as the change in estimates since Sept. 30.
|Index/sector||Blended Q4 revenue growth estimate on Feb. 8||Blended Q4 revenue growth estimate on Jan. 11 (decline)||Blended Q4 revenue growth estimate on Sept. 30 (decline)||Q1 revenue growth estimate on Feb. 8 (decline)||Q1 revenue growth estimate on Jan. 11||Q1 revenue growth estimate on Sept. 30|