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As oil tumbles, profit hopes are following

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Jan. 8, 2015.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Jan. 8, 2015.

If profits are what really drive share prices, the next several quarters are heading into a tepid time.

Analyst earnings estimates are nosediving for the fourth quarter of 2014 and through pretty much all of 2015. Where expectations once were for companies in the S&P 500 collectively to report an 11.4 percent profit gain from the previous three months, those projections have tumbled all the way down to 4.6 percent as reporting season kicks into full gear.

The news gets no better as the year wears on: First-quarter estimates have fallen from 14.8 percent to 4.8 percent, and the full-year forecast has dimmed from 11.5 percent to 7.4 percent, according to the latest estimates from S&P Capital IQ. And if present trends hold up, they will come down even more.

Much of the pessimism stems from the plunge in oil prices that caught virtually everyone off guard, with Wall Street trying to figure out what it means over the long run.

Most everyone agrees that consumers will benefit to varying degrees, but the downward revisions reflect worry over how much other aspects of the economy such as capital spending will be affected.

Energy companies, in fact, likely will take a 20 percent hit to their bottom lines because of the collapse in energy, according to calculations by Jonathan Golub, chief market strategist at RBC Capital Markets, and others on his team.

However, the prevailing narrative—at least so far—is that the benefits will outweigh the costs.

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"Excluding the impact of energy, the decline in earnings (estimates) appears to be in line with its historical average," Golub said in a note to clients that put the estimates for fourth-quarter profits at a more optimistic 5.4 percent.

The latest S&P Capital IQ projections concur with expectations for a 20 percent decline in energy sector earnings—20.6 percent, more precisely—with materials the only other likely negative sector, with a 4.9 percent drop. Consumer staples are projected to turn in a flat quarter.

Top-line revenue is expected to increase just 2.3 percent, which would represent the worst performance since the fourth quarter of 2013.

On the plus side, health care companies could see a 19.1 percent gain, while estimates see telecom growth at 13.7 percent and industrials at 9.7 percent.

Alcoa reports earnings after the closing bell Monday, with JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo accelerating things when the two banks report Wednesday. So far, 21 companies have reported, with 86 percent beating bottom-line profit estimates, according to S&P.

"We remain more sanguine than most regarding the implications of the 'New Oil Order' on S&P 500 earnings," David Kostin, chief market strategist at Goldman Sachs, said in a note. "We believe the direct negative impact from the energy sector will be offset by a boost to the consumer and diffuse margin gains elsewhere."

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Still, Kostin is not indifferent to the negative offsets from energy's decline.

The report projects a full-year energy earnings plunge of 50 percent—in dollar terms, $65 billion less in S&P 500 profits. Consumers, though, would benefit to the tune of $150 billion, making the move a net positive.

"A decline in oil prices of 40 percent should therefore lower costs and expand margins by more than enough to offset the net earnings headwind," Kostin said. "Inputs vary substantially by industry, with transportation benefiting the most and information technology the least."

To be sure, the earnings revision game is one that Wall Street plays every quarter, with hopes that under-promising and over-delivering helps make investors happy and results in higher stock prices.

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Sam Stovall, U.S. equity strategist at S&P Capital IQ, thinks the same cycle is playing out in 2015, with the result being continued growth even it doesn't meet lofty expectations.

"Even though the forecast for Q4 S&P 500 EPS growth looks to be sequentially weaker than Q3, history shows that actual EPS increases have been 2-4 percentage points higher that initial estimates," Stovall said in a note. "A projected acceleration of U.S. economic growth, improving capital spending and still favorable interest rates likely aided this quarter's possible outcome."