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Earnings Outlook: S&P 500 EPS growth outlook turns negative, while Q4 increases

Fourth-quarter earnings growth for S&P 500 companies keeps looking a little better, but the outlook for the first quarter has turned negative, which would be the first earnings decline in nearly three years, if it holds.

Meanwhile, while the percentage growth in the latest quarter is on track to be double-digits for a fifth-straight quarter, it is about half that 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 45% of the S&P 500 companies reporting results through Friday, the overall blended EPS growth consensus for the S&P 500 nudged up to 12.4% from 11.0% a week ago, and from 10.6% at the start of earnings season. 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.

The S&P 500 index

SPX, +0.06%

tumbled 14% during the fourth quarter, compared with a total 9% gain for the first three quarters of the year. It has advanced 4.3% since earnings season kicked off ahead of the Jan. 14 open, through midday trade Friday.

So far, the beat rate has been in line with historical averages. J.P. Morgan equity strategists said Friday that about 72% of the companies reporting results have beat EPS.

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 EPS blended growth estimate for the first quarter is now showing a decline of 0.9%, compared with growth estimates of 1.9% on Jan. 11 and 6.7% on Sept. 30.

If that 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. Trough Friday, six of 11 sectors are now expected to suffer EPS declines.

Although its common to see forward EPS estimates decline, that cuts for the first quarter, and for the first half of 2019, have been more pronounced than usual this year.

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. 1 (decline) Blended Q4 EPS growth estimate on Jan. 11 (decline) Blended Q4 EPS growth estimate on Sept. 30 Q1 EPS growth estimate on Feb. 1 (decline) Q1 EPS growth estimate on Jan. 11 (decline) Q1 EPS growth estimate on Sept. 30
S&P 500 12.4% 10.6% 16.2% (0.9%) 1.9% 6.6%
Communications services 15.7% 13.7% 16.7% (0.9%) 0.4% 3.0%
Consumer discretionary 13.0% 11.2% 16.2% (2.5%) (0.8%) 3.4%
Consumer staples 3.6% 2.9% 6.7% 0.5% 0.8% 2.9%
Energy 98.1% 74.8% 91.3% (6.8%) (0.1%) 39.6%
Financials 9.7% 10.1% 18.5% (0.03%) 1.9% 3.3%
Health care 12.6% 10.8% 11.9% 6.9% 9.1% 8.6%
Industrials 17.2% 14.2% 20.6% 3.7% 6.4% 8.9%
Information technology 4.6% 3.4% 9.2% (8.6%) (4.2%) 3.5%
Materials 2.9% 5.3% 17.5% (6.0)% 7.0% 12.7%
Real estate 8.2% 8.5% 9.2% 2.5% 2.5% 5.3%
Utilities (5.6%) (6.0%) 5.0% 4.0% 2.8% 4.2%
FactSet

(Citigroup Inc.

C, -0.28%

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 6.4% well below the average of 9.7% for the first three quarters of 2018, and the slowest growth since the second quarter of 2017’s 5.5% 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. 1 (decline) Blended Q4 revenue growth estimate on Jan. 11 (decline) Blended Q4 revenue growth estimate on Sept. 30 (decline) Q1 revenue growth estimate on Feb. 1 Q1 revenue growth estimate on Jan. 11 Q1 revenue growth estimate on Sept. 30
S&P 500 6.4% 5.6% 6.9% 5.8% 6.3% 6.5%
Communications services 20.2% 20.2% 19.0% 13.1% 13.1% 11.6%
Consumer discretionary 5.0% 4.7% 6.0% 3.6% 3.7% 4.7%
Consumer staples 2.0% 2.0% 2.4% 2.9% 2.9% 3.0%
Energy 10.7% 7.8% 14.6% 4.1% 4.0% 14.6%
Financials 3.1% 3.4% 4.6% 5.4% 5.8% 7.1%
Health care 8.2% 5.8% 6.2% 12.7% 12.9% 6.2%
Industrials 6.5% 5.1% 6.7% 4.1% 4.9% 5.2%
Information technology 1.4% 1.6% 5.4% (0.4%) 1.3% 5.3%
Materials 8.3% 10.0% 5.6% 6.0% 10.0% 5.1%
Real Estate 10.8% 10.9% 10.6% 3.9% 3.9% 4.8%
Utilities (1.4%) (2.6%) (5.0%) 4.7% 3.8% (0.2)%
FactSet