By Wallace Witkowski, MarketWatch
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- Halfway through fourth-quarter earnings season, U.S. stocks are coming off their worst January in years, sending the message to Corporate America that par for the course isn't good enough after the run-up in stock prices over the past year.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) ended the past week down 1.9%, capping a monthly decline of more than 5%, its worst January since 2009, when it fell 8.8%. Likewise, the S&P 500 Index (SPX) finished the month down 3.6%, its worst January since 2010, when it fell 3.7%. Finally, the Nasdaq Composite Index (RIXF) finished down 1.7% for the month for its worst January since 2010, when it dropped 5.4%.
Declining emerging-markets currencies such as the Turkish lira and the South African rand, coupled with a contraction in Chinese manufacturing, weighed heavily on markets as the Federal Reserve pushed forward with its tapering of monthly asset purchases this past week. All that uncertainty, along with the S&P 500's 30% gain in 2013, has raised investor expectations about quarterly earnings results.
"Investors are like children: If you tell them you're bringing home a puppy, you better have a puppy when you get home," said Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx.
Nowhere was that more apparent than with Amazon.com Inc.'s (AMZN) results this past week. Amazon had promised a "record-setting" holiday season, but earnings and sales fell short of the Wall Street consensus. Shares of Amazon dropped 11% on Friday, the following day, triggering a Nasdaq short-sale restriction.
It doesn't matter that profit warnings reached record levels going into fourth-quarter earnings season; expectations across the board are much higher this year compared with last year given that "all the good news" has already been baked into stock valuations, Colas said. It's been a fairly lackluster earnings season, and that's not enough to keep stock prices up, he said.
Also keep in mind that investors have been looking for a correction for a long time, said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Banyan Partners. Earnings season has been more or less as expected, so investors have been looking for a convenient trigger for a selloff.
"The bottom line is that the market is not even fixed on earnings season: It's fixed on the emerging-markets issue," Pavlik said. "It's as though earnings have become secondary in this period."
With that in mind, Pavlik expects emerging-markets jitters to run their course, he said, and bottom out soon. After that, he expects bargain-hunters to make their move and earnings will come back into play, he said.
Consider the Super Bowl the earnings-season halftime show
So far, half of the S&P 500 has reported results this earnings season. Of the companies that have reported, 74% have topped Wall Street profit estimates; that's above the one-year average of 71% and the four-year average of 73%, according to John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet. Earnings have been about 3.6% above expectations, compared with a one-year average of 3.3% above targets and a four-year average of 5.8% above Wall Street estimates.
On the revenue side of things, a higher-than-average number of companies have beaten expectations, but, when taken as a whole, revenue has actually come in just below expectations. About 67% of companies reported sales above the Wall Street consensus, compared with the one-year average of 54% and the four-year average of 59%, according to FactSet data. When taken together, however, reported sales from companies on the S&P 500 are 0.1% below expectations, whereas the one-year average is 0.4% above and the four-year average is 0.6% above, Butters said.
This week two of the 30 components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and just under a fifth of the S&P 500 are slated to report earnings, with financial companies, health-care related stocks and consumer-driven stocks in the spotlight.
Not only will Dow components Walt Disney Co. (DIS) and Merck & Co. (MRK) report quarterly results on Wednesday, but Twitter Inc. (TWTR) will post its first earnings report since going public late last year. Shares of Twitter finished the week higher, caught in the updraft of Facebook Inc.'s (FB) strong results.
Insurers such as Aflac Inc. (AFL), Allstate Corp.(ALL), Aetna Inc. (AET), Cigna Corp.(CI) and Prudential Financial Inc. (PRU) will also report, along with exchange operators Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. (NDAQ) and CME Group Inc. (CME).
Following last week's data showing that consumer spending rose in December while consumer sentiment declined in January, consumer-driven stocks will likely fall under increased scrutiny.
In addition to Disney, fellow media companies Time Warner Inc.(TWX), MarketWatch parent News Corp. (NWSA)(NWS), 21st Century Fox Inc. (NWS)(NWSA) and Gannett Co. (GCI) are set to report results. Other notable consumer-discretionary companies reporting include General Motors Co. (GM.XX), Expedia Inc. (EXPE) and Yum Brands Inc. (YUM). Consumer-staples companies reporting results include Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), Kellogg Co. (K) and Philip Morris International Inc. (PM).
Even with high-profile profit warnings from companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) this past week, the percentage of companies issuing earnings guidance below the Wall Street consensus has actually declined from the previous earnings season. Of the 54 companies that have given guidance for the first quarter so far, 44, or 81%, have guided below the consensus Wall Street view, according to FactSet's Butters. While that's above the five-year average of 64%, it's still below the 84% doing the same at this time last earnings season.
Long-cycle factors come into play
As high-frequency trading grows and investors pan the deluge of market data and news for some edge in trading, longer-cycle issues like sustainable economic growth and inflation are going to have more of a say in stock valuations than quarterly earnings reports going forward, ConvergEx's Colas said. That also means more volatility in the markets, especially as easing measures are removed.
Even a fairly decent rise in fourth-quarter GDP of 3.2%, which helped stocks close higher Thursday, didn't hold sway into Friday, but with the third quarter's GDP gain of 4.1%, it's that sort of consistent growth that will have more and more influence on stocks.
"Economic growth is the most important factor right now -- emerging markets have made that clear," Colas said, adding that the primary long-term driver for global growth has to be the U.S. economy.
"GDP growth is going to be the most critical single factor," Colas said, with an emphasis on how that growth translates into job creation, not just in 2014 but in 2015 and 2016 and onward.
With that in mind, January jobs data and the unemployment rate come out Friday. Economists polled by MarketWatch expect an addition of 185,000 jobs and a steady unemployment rate of 6.7%.
Other data on tap in the coming week include the ISM manufacturing report on Monday, with services data on Wednesday and December factory-orders data on Tuesday.
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