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Bored now! Earnings surprises just aren't what they used to be

Into the futures: Fed tea leaves

For publicly traded companies, beating earnings expectations just isn't what it used to be.

Companies that have beat both earnings and revenue estimate this earnings season have seen their stocks jump just 1.5 percent on average, according to RBC's market strategy team. That compares to an average rise of 1.9 percent.

Similarly, FactSet senior earnings analyst John Butters notices that companies beating just earnings estimates (but not both earnings and revenue) have seen their stocks rise only 0.8 percent in the period starting two days before the report, and ending two days after. That's below the 1 percent average rise over the past five years.

An even more dramatic nonchalance can be seen around earnings misses. In the two-days-before-to-two-days-after period, companies that have missed earnings have tended to see a drop of 1.3 percent, versus a 2.3 percent drop on average, according to FactSet.

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It's worth noting that RBC doesn't notice a similar trend for companies that have missed both revenue and earnings estimates—those stocks have tended to fall 3.1 percent this quarter, the same amount as in quarters prior, according to their numbers.

'Comatose' market

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More to the point, the increased malaise around surprising earnings results can be noticed from a few different standpoints.

To a certain extent, this is unsurprising, given that the overall mood of the stock market in 2015 might best be described as "comatose." The amount of nothing that stocks have done thus far is setting all sorts of historical records.

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Yet the trend may also reflect the overall state of the economy. With the U.S. economy deeper into its slow recovery, there may simply be less up in the air when companies unveil their results.

"One possibility is that this far in the cycle, investors understand company fundamentals well enough that surprises aren't really surprising," Convergex chief market strategist Nicholas Colas told CNBC.

In other words, investors don't need to be convinced that a company is able to operate profitably, and the questions answered by a given earnings report are thus less consequential than they used to be.

A similar argument can be made about momentum stocks, according to Eddy Elfenbein, author of the "Crossing Wall Street" blog.

"One of the few areas that have been working consistently has been momentum stocks like biotech and online retail names," Elfenbein wrote recently. "That's the sign of an aging bull, and I think the reaction to earnings beliefs reflects the thought that the ceiling is close for momentum."

So at the same time moderate growth is less noteworthy, fast growth isn't quite as impressive as it used to be, either. Investors figure that it won't last forever.

The muted earnings moves, then, may simply serve as confirmation of a fact that anyone with a calendar already knew. This latest bull market is getting a bit long in the tooth, and the same things that worked two or three years ago may not work as well today.

—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg.

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