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"Higher energy prices, a stronger dollar and continued uncertainties emanating from Washington will keep Q3's growth to a low single-digit pace and could moderate forward guidance," said Sam Stovall, chief equity strategist at S&P Capital.
"So while Q3 EPS of 3.5 percent seems to be attainable, in our view, questions remain about the likelihood of seeing a near-10 percent growth in earnings in the final quarter of the year, not to mention the 11.2 percent increase projected by Wall Street analysts in the year ahead."
Indeed, companies will have to climb quite a wall to reach the current profit goals.
For that reason, forward guidance is likely to play a crucial role in how the market interprets the earnings results.
Heading into the third quarter, companies have guided negatively by a 3-to-1 ratio, ahead of the historical average. Though earnings season is still young, just 51 percent of the 21 companies that have reported are ahead of estimates.
Downbeat forecasts, then, could have a ripple effect as investors try to determine whether the 18 percent stock market rally so far this year is sustainable.
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CEOs have a "tendency to underpromise and overdeliver," said Sheraz Mian, research director at Zack's Investment Research.
"Current estimates for Q4 represent a material growth ramp-up of almost 9 percent, the starting point of the long hoped-for resumption in earnings growth," Mian said. "I have been skeptical of estimates for Q4 and beyond, and expect them to come down. We will find out in the coming weeks if we will get another round of estimate cuts or something different."
Companies have placated investors' hunger for growth by using the $1.8 trillion on their collective balance sheet for share buybacks.
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True to form, the current $4.5 billion in share repurchases per day, boosted by Microsoft's $40 billion, is a record, according to market data firm TrimTabs.