Consumer, telecom stocks may lead earnings growth

Earnings season: First-quarter leaders and laggards
Earnings season: First-quarter leaders and laggards

Earnings season is officially underway, and based on historical results, some sectors tend to perform better than others in the first quarter.

Consumer discretionary stocks have performed particularly well near the start of the year, and that could be partly because early tax filers are spending their refunds, according to S&P Capital IQ analyst Christine Short.

"I also know some of that can be lingering gift cards from the holidays. Those aren't counted until spent, which could be why retailers are receiving a boost," Short said.

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S&P 500 components in the consumer discretionary sector reported earnings growth of 380 percent on average for every first quarter since 2008, according to data from S&P Capital IQ.

Consumer goods as well as the tech and materials sectors were the top-performing sectors in the first quarters of the past five years, according to S&P Capital IQ.

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"You'll notice these are all cyclical sectors. High growth rates reflect the fact that in 2008 and 2009, profit growth for these sectors was so incredibly low, that when earnings began to normalize in 2010 through 2013, the easier comparisons from previous years created inflated growth rates," Short said.

Earnings are expected to have grown 8 percent in the first quarter of 2014 in the consumer discretionary sector.

Historical first-quarter laggards are defensive stocks that make up the telecom, utilities and health-care sectors. The telecom sector is the smallest in the S&P 500, and was lagging for several quarters because of poor results from Sprint Nextel, which has since fallen out of the index, according to Short.

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This year, however, telecoms are expected to make up the strongest sector in first-quarter earnings growth. S&P Capital IQ expects telecom earnings to grow more than 40 percent from the year-ago quarter.

As of Thursday morning, 26 companies have reported, 14 have beat expectations, nine have missed expectations and three have met them, according to S&P Capital IQ. That amounts to a beat rate of 54 percent compared with a historical average beat rate of 64 percent, Short noted.

"We will most certainly start to see the growth rate improve once companies start to report. Over the last three years we've noticed the growth rate on the day that Alcoa reports, increases by an average of 3.5 percent by the time the season is completed ... meaning analysts' are way too conservative, often taking their guidance from companies that are trying to lower the bar by providing low estimates," Short said.

—By CNBC's Althea Chang