Capital expenditures have particularly suffered from the plunge in oil prices as energy companies account for about a quarter of total capex, Roberts said.
Read MoreThis is a critical time for crude: Technician
The discrepancy between earnings beats and revenue misses adds to indicators of underlying weakness in the economy, particularly in employment, he added.
His Economic Composite Index, which averages major economic reports, shows a continued downturn after the end of quantitative easing in October.
"Companies are so focused on buying back stock and being very careful with (capital development) because of the slow growth in the United States," said Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at global brokerage firm Convergex.
He pointed out that the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's GDPNow model forecast real GDP growth of near zero percent for the first quarter, below the consensus expectations of about 1.5 percent. The model mimics the methods used by the U.S. government to estimate GDP growth.
To be sure, CNBC analysis of 30 years of GDP reports found that the first-quarter reports are the weakest, almost to the point of underreporting.
Read MoreWhy is the economy always so weak in the first quarter? Nobody really knows
Some encouraging news on the industrial front could come from economic reports. Markit posts the first read on April PMI manufacturing at 9:45 a.m. on Thursday. Analysts polled by Reuters expect 55.5. The final read on March was 55.7, up from 55.1 in February, according to Markit.
Weekly jobless claims and new home sales are also due Thursday morning.
But beyond any further economic signals investors may get Thursday morning, corporate health remains critical.
"The earnings themselves are slowing," said Nick Raich, CEO of The Earnings Scout.