We are in a somewhat of a dead-zone on the data front this week, with the Q4 earnings season effectively over and not much on the economic calendar either. For the record, the earnings season isn’t officially over yet as we will get results from more than 180 companies this week, including 2 S&P 500 members. But with results from 495 S&P 500 members already out, the Q4 earnings picture is pretty much carved in stone.

The focus lately had been on economic data. But aside from Friday’s jobs report, it has been one persistent ‘blame-the-weather’ narrative. A number of recent earnings reports have been scapegoating the weather as well, but the reason they could that is that they have mostly been from the retail sector.

It was a tough reporting season for the retail sector. Not only has earnings and revenue growth for the sector been the weakest relative to recent quarters, but most companies have guided lower for the current period as well. Total earnings for the sector were expected to be up +1.1% in Q4 at the start of the reporting cycle in early January, but actual growth has been a decline of -2.3%.

Not much is expected to improve in the current period as well, as the chart below of earnings expectations for 2014 Q1 shows.

Earnings

In fairness to Retail, they are hardly the only one suffering negative estimate revisions, as 2014 Q1 estimates for most of the other sectors have been moving in that direction as well. As has been the case for more than a year now, the predominant tone of management guidance was negative this earnings season as well, prompting estimates for Q1 to come down. Total Q1 earnings for the S&P 500 were expected to be up +2.1% at the start of the Q4 reporting season in early January has now dropped to a decline of -1.5%.

Q4 Earnings Scorecard (as of Friday, 3/7/2014)

Total earnings for the 495 S&P 500 members that have reported already, combined accounting for 99.7% of the index’s total market capitalization,  are up +9.2% from the same period last year, with a ‘beat ratio’ of 64.2% and a median surprise of +2.4%. Total revenues are barely in the positive column, up only +0.7%, with a revenue ‘beat ratio’ of 56.2% and a median surprise of +0.6%.

More companies have beat earnings and revenue expectations than has been the case in recent quarters, as the chart below shows. Perhaps expectations had fallen a bit low ahead of the Q4 reporting season.

The earnings growth rate for these 495 companies is better than what we saw from this same group of companies in Q3 and the 4-quarer average. A big contributor to the strong Q4 earnings growth is easy comparisons for three companies – Bank of America (BAC), Verizon (VZ), and Travelers(TRV). Exclude these three companies and total earnings growth for the S&P 500 companies that have reported drops to +5.5% from the ‘headline’ +9.2%, which is about where growth has been in recent quarters.

The revenue growth rate is notably weak, but that’s primarily because of the Finance and Energy sectors.

Prudential Financial (PRU) had an unusually large top-line gain in the year-earlier quarter and is a big reason for the Finance sector’s -7.1% drop in reported revenues. Excluding these two sectors, total revenue growth for the S&P 500 improves to +3%, compared to growth rates of +3.3% for the same group of companies in Q3 and the 4-quarter average of +2.5%. What this means is that top-line growth is weak, but it’s not as weak as the ‘headline’ +0.7% gain would make you believe.

The Composite Growth Picture

The ‘composite’ picture for Q4, where we combine results from the 495 companies that have reported already with the 5 still to come, is for growth rate of +9.2%. This will be the highest quarterly growth pace of 2013, with easy comparisons playing a non-trivial role in propping up the growth pace. The +9.2% growth rate compares to +5.0% in Q3 and +4.0% in Q2.

Finance remains a big growth driver in Q4 – total earnings growth for the S&P 500 in Q4 drop to +6.4% once the sector is excluded. Energy continues to be a drag on aggregate growth, with total earnings for the sector expected to be down -10.6% in Q4 after declining -8.4% in Q3. Excluding the Energy sector, total Q4 earnings for the S&P 500 would be up +12.1% vs. +6.9% in Q3.

Technology earnings are expected be up +5.0% after the +5.6% gain in Q3. While Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB) did extremely well, the sector overall has had a good earnings season as well. With Q4 results from 100% of the sector’s total market capitalization already out, total earnings for the sector are up +5.0% on +4.5% higher revenues. These growth rates aren’t materially different from what we saw from this same group of companies in Q3, but the beat ratios are notably better, indicating that expectations may have fallen a bit too low in the run up to the start of the reporting season.

Of the Tech sector companies that have reported already (65 out of 65 Tech sector companies in the S&P 500 accounting for 100% of the sector’s total market cap have reported results), 76.9% have beat earnings expectations, up from Q3’s 72.3% earnings beat ratio and the 4-quarter average of 72.7%. Positive revenue surprises have been materially widespread relative to recent quarters as well, with Q4 revenue beat ratio currently tracking 66.2% vs. 66.2% in Q3 and the 4-quarter average of 56.9%.

Lack of corporate capital spending has been an issue for the sector for some time and the consensus view is that we will see a turnaround on that front later this year. We haven’t heard anything yet that will add to our confidence in that expectation. But this optimistic view is a big contributor to the expected upturn in the Tech sector’s growth estimate later this year. Total earnings for the sector are expected to be up +10.1% this year and +11.1% in 2015, pronounced acceleration from the flat reading in 2013.

For a detailed look at the Q4 earnings season and the overall earnings picture, please check out our weekly Earnings Trends report.

Monday-3/10

  • Nothing major on the economic calendar.
  • Urban Outfitter (URBN), Casey General Stores (CASY) and United Natural Foods (UNFI) are the only notable earnings releases today, all after the close.
  • Zacks Earnings ESP, or Expected Surprise Prediction, our proprietary leading indicator of earnings surprises, is showing UNFI coming out an earnings beat.
  • Companies with Zacks Rank of 1, 2 or 3 and positive Earnings ESP are highly likely to come out with positive earnings surprises. United Natural Foods has a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold) and Earnings ESP of +3.6%.
  • To get a better understanding of Zacks Earnings Surprise Predictor, please click here.

Tuesday -3/11

  • Not much on the economic calendar.
  • Bon-Ton Stores (BONT) and Dicks Sporting Goods (DKS) are the only notable earnings reports in the morning, while Caesar’s Entertainment (CZR) will report after the close.
  • With a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold) and Earnings ESP of +0.9%, Dicks Sporting is expected to come out with an earnings beat.

Wednesday-3/12