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Prepare for a deluge of wintry earnings excuses

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Economists have already blamed soft numbers on harsh winter weather. Now CEOs will get their shot.

As the first-quarter earnings season gets started, 9 out of the 21 companies that have reported have mentioned the negative impact of their weather on earnings, according to FactSet. Notably, 6 of these 9 failed to beat earnings expectations.

While the current sample size is small, if this trend continues, then 214 S&P 500 companies will cite the negative impact of weather. This compares with the 195 companies that mentioned it in their fourth-quarter results.

What makes this trend notable is that it is not constrained to any one industry. Companies from Costco to FedEx to Darden Restaurants to Lennar have cited the negative impact of weather on earnings.

The wide range of companies reporting weather disturbances could be an indication that weather has been a true drag on economic activity in 2014.

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"Maybe in quarters past it's been more of an excuse, but this time around, it's probably a more legitimate reason why earnings and revenues have fallen short of expectations," said FactSet senior earnings analyst John Butters.

The problem is that when it comes to any given company, gauging just how big of an impact the weather has had can be nearly impossible for investors and financial analysts alike. As one analyst told CNBC.com, there's simply no way for an outsider to assess whether a company could be overstating the effect of a harsh winter on sales.

On General Mills' earnings call, CFO Don Mulligan said that "severe winter weather resulted in weak sales trends across the food industry and our categories." Later in the call, RBC analyst David Palmer challenged management to clarify the weather impact, given that "restaurants were suffering over those same two months, and so it seems logical that people were eating more at home."

In response, the company's chairman and CEO, Ken Powell, said that in addition to disrupting plant operations and logistics, harsh weather led to fewer trips to food retailers, restaurants and cafeterias. So consumers were "staying at home and probably drawing down a bit from their own pantries, which slowed down the industry."

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PVH, the clothing giant that specializes in shirts, also mentioned the impact of the weather on its business, at least in certain regions. And on PVH's March 26 call, Chairman and CEO Emanuel Chirico sounded almost defensive about it.

"The catalyst for you as a consumer to go out and buy bright-colored short-sleeve knit shirts to go golfing in, and most of our courses haven't opened up up here, that's the challenge," Chirico said in response to a question from ISI Group analyst Omar Saad ."So my gut is telling me that based on everything that I see, my 20 years' experience in this business, that we are being significantly impacted by weather and a late Easter."

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Of course, for a shipping company like FedEx, there is probably no disputing that weather had some of impact.

"As we all know, historically severe winter weather has been a factor in all of our lives these last several months, and it had significantly affected our third-quarter earnings," FedEx Chairman, President and CEO Fred Smith said, mentioning the word "weather" for the first of 41 times on that earnings call.

So while investors will have to gauge the veracity of weather excuses on a case-by-case basis, one thing is for sure—they would be hearing a lot less about the weather if it had been mild.

"Generally speaking, if things have a negative impact, you're probably hearing about it more," Butters said.

—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg

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