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Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Here's the one trend to watch in earnings season

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The first-quarter earnings season looks to offer something the market hasn't seen in years. Subsequent quarters likely will have to keep up or it could be an ugly year for corporate America.

Total sales could top bottom-line profits, a turnaround that comes after corporations had spent quarter after quarter slashing costs through layoffs and other forms of austerity. At the same time, revenue lagged amid weak demand and a general lack of confidence.

So in some respects this could be what the market has been waiting for since the financial crisis and the accompanying recession—that point where consumers are willing to take the handoff and generate growth.

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"At the end of the day this is what the market needs to move forward," said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Annuities. "It shows us the demand. Where is the demand coming from and how much is it? Which sectors is the demand coming from? It's a multifaceted picture of demand. That is what the market is demanding right now."

Pro expects lackluster earnings season

Officially, analyst consensus for profits is dismal—a loss of 0.13 percent for the , against a projected revenue gain of about 3 percent, excluding financials, a sector expected to see a drop of 7.8 percent, according to S&P Capital IQ.

Neither figure is anything to get particularly excited about, but the revenue number, and the full-year projection for a 4 percent gain, would represent a substantial increase from 2013's anemic 1.1 percent growth.

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There's a hitch, though: Analysts are still expecting full-year earnings growth of 7.3 percent, a figure that appears harder to attain considering the weakness of the first quarter and how much expectations already have been reduced. As recently as January, analysts were looking for something closer to 5 percent growth for the first quarter and 10 percent full-year gains.

"If you have a slowdown or further decline, if the next quarter doesn't come in at 8 or almost 9 percent where expectations are now, I think that's troublesome," Mike Thompson, head of global markets intelligence at S&P Capital IQ, said during a CNBC interview. "Of the handful of companies that have reported so far, a lot of guys have missed, and that's a little disconcerting."

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Several sectors feature wide disparities between earnings and revenue expectations.

Consumer discretionary expects earnings of 7.9 percent and revenue of 12.5 percent; health care is 0.65 percent versus 6.24 percent; and industrials are -2.2 percent versus 4.3 percent.

To be sure, this may just be a one-quarter phenomenon, but it bears watching.

"That would be kind of groundbreaking" if it continues, said Nick Raich, CEO of The Earnings Scout. "But I would wonder why with all the cost-cutting going on you would see revenue growth without the (corresponding) earnings growth. That would be a head-scratcher for me."

Despite a tremendously lowered bar overall, companies are still struggling to match Wall Street expectations.

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Through Friday, a mere 52 percent of companies topped earnings estimates and only 48 percent beat profit estimates—albeit it from a tiny sample of 29 companies that represent just 6 percent of the S&P 500.

That's going to have to change.

The market is facing enough pressure the way it is, with a fairly aggressive selloff over the past week in momentum stocks that saw the Nasdaq plunge 3 percent in Thursday's session alone. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve seems committed to its path of unwinding its monthly bond-buying program called quantitative easing, and interest rate hikes are on the horizon in 2015.

"Markets are starting to care. Markets are starting to think for themselves again," Krosby said. "The expiration date on QE is still in the future, but as we get closer to that date we're going see where top-line growth becomes crucial."

Divining QE's true impact on the market indeed will be critical in determining whether the bull run can continue.

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Corporations have utilized the Fed's zero-interest-rate policy to run up huge levels of cheap debt, which they then used to buy back shares of their own stock. More than $1 trillion of buybacks have reduced share counts and thus boosted earnings-per-share levels to record highs.

The question now is whether companies can begin to drive earnings organically once the Fed ends QE, which has sent the central bank's balance sheet to nearly $4.3 trillion.

If revenue doesn't grow, "the market will say these valuations are more and more based on QE," Krosby said. "The market is trying to find that equilibrium: What is fundamentals and what is QE? Top-line growth is really key. It's so important because it feeds into a spectrum of analysis that goes beyond just the typical company."