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What earnings will—and won’t—tell us about the economy

How much did the economy slow in the first quarter? A clue could come in the flood of earnings reports ahead.

Noticing "clients' anxiety about equity markets," Thomas Lee of Fundstrat Global Advisors wrote in a note that "Investors worry that the economy is weakening" due to concerns about the strong dollar, the drop in oil prices, and a coming tightening move from the Federal Reserve.

A slew of weak economic reports cannot have helped either. In particular, the March employment report severely disappointed the market, and lead to broader concerns about the pace of economic growth.

Still, the generally bullish Lee thinks investors will soon find renewed confidence.

"An absence of visibility undermines conviction," Lee wrote in his note Friday. And "visibility improves starting with earnings next week."

This week, we hear from giants such as Intel, General Electric, JPMorgan and Johnson & Johnson.

Predictions for first-quarter earnings have been dire, with analysts expecting S&P 500 earnings to drop nearly 5 percent from previous the year, according to FactSet. And while FactSet earnings analyst John Butters notes that analyst tend to underestimate earnings, he calculates that if the percentage of beats hews close to the average, earnings growth will still come in no higher than negative 1.5 percent.

That would be the first quarterly earnings drop logged by the S&P 500 since the third quarter of 2012.

Would those kind of numbers lead to more of that "anxiety," and consequently to a downside for stocks?

Boris Schlossberg, a currency strategist with BK Asset Management, doesn't think so.

"I think investors are going to look past Q1 [earnings] unless the numbers are truly horrid," Schlossberg said. "The headwinds of the dollar, of weather, make it a very unknowable type of quarter."

David Seaburg, head of equity sales trading at Cowen, said that an already cloudy earnings picture might become fogged even further by that statistical error term known as the "excuse factor."

"Companies will use this as an excuse. They'll allow the natural belief that things are not so great" and use it to report soft guidance so that in the second quarter, "they can upside surprise and set up for a phenomenal second half," Seaburg said.

Even if earnings do send more bad news about the American economy, then, we may not be able to read the signal through all the static.


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