Early signals: Companies upending earnings, revenue trends
Although its early in the earnings season, corporate America is so far breaking its pattern of missing on revenue and beating on earnings.
"It's early, things can change, but 10 percent of the way through, you can start to draw some conclusions when it's such a departure," said Greg Harrison, senior research analyst at Thomson Reuters. He was referring to the current trend of companies' topping revenue expectations but disappointing on earnings—the opposite of what has been the case during the past year.
Wall Street analysts have been hoping for a turnaround year, where the bottom line, or revenues, would begin to show better growth.
Blended revenues—those of companies that have reported and those expected to—are up about 0.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters. While those gains are small, that revenues are beating on the upside is a positive sign.
The profit picture is not as encouraging. With fourth-quarter results in from 52 of the companies on the S&P 500, "we're off to a pretty bad start compared to normal," Harrison said of the earnings, which have come primarily from the financial and consumer discretionary sectors.
Sixty-seven 67 percent have beaten revenue estimates, though—an unusually high number.
The government shutdown, bad weather and a shortened holiday shopping season are among the likely factors that made for "bumpy results" and trimmed profits in the last quarter of 2013, said Jim Russell, senior equity strategist for U.S. Bank Wealth Management.
"Less beats and more misses," said Nick Raich, CEO at The Earnings Scout. "I give the actual fourth-quarter numbers about a C—not the worst and not the best."
Guidance coming into the fourth quarter was the most negative since Thomson Reuters began compiling the data in 1996.
"For every company that gave positive guidance, there are over eight instances of negative guidance," Harrison said. "That helped lower the expectations for earnings this quarter, but still companies are missing the lowered expectations."
United Parcel Service was among those projecting earnings below expectations, with the global shipper having missed holiday deliveries, as well as more hiring of temporary workers amid a spike in online shopping just ahead of the Christmas holiday.
"The thing that will matter most will be first-quarter revisions," Raich said. "The positive revisions I've seen over the last two years are beginning to stall out."
He blames the interest rate rise that came with the Federal Reserve's decision in December to taper its monthly asset purchases.
"The Fed wants to taper, they are going to taper, but not as quickly as they want without rolling over the economy," Raich said. "The Fed is going to have to play the game a little longer."
But Russell has a more positive take, saying capital spending and movement on the acquisition front are "starting to move forward a bit," among the things he sees as "constructively beginning to unfold now."
—By CNBC's Kate Gibson