With third-quarter earnings season winding down, the majority of reports have come in above estimates. However, in comparison to previous years, the results are looking pretty dismal.
Gina Martin Adams of Wells Fargo Securities wrote Thursday that with 90 percent of companies in the S&P 500 having reported, third-quarter earnings are projected to fall 1.5 percent compared to one year ago. This would mark the first quarterly year-over-year decline since 2009.
The biggest drags on earnings have been energy and materials. Indeed, if we exclude the energy sector, which saw a 58 percent year-over-year drop, earnings per share rose by 3.9 percent. However, that doesn't necessarily mean an earnings turnaround is ahead, as Martin Adams believes those sectors' problems are unlikely to abate anytime soon.
"Looking ahead, Q4 estimates now suggest another quarter of YOY EPS declines is likely, extending the so-called earnings recession to the end of the year," she said.
For Larry McDonald, head of U.S. macro strategy at Societe Generale, the issue comes from financial engineering of results reports through tax inversions, buybacks and other methods meant to boost earnings. Now, McDonald said those strategies have been exhausted, which has taken a toll on quarterly earnings.
"It's generated a ton of earnings momentum, those earnings margins have been at record highs, but now ... we're at the bone," McDonald said Thursday on CNBC's "Trading Nation." "We're at the point where we're rolling over in terms of earnings, and the quality of earnings is getting worse because there's really not much left there."
And slowed earnings could be a big problem for stocks as the S&P 500 has stalled, technician Rich Ross of Evercore ISI said Thursday, also on "Trading Nation." That index is up about 1.5 percent this year, despite some volatile months that saw big swings for stocks.
Looking at the charts, Ross said stocks may see a retest of the 150-week moving average in the next three to six months. A break below that would signal the end of the long-term bull market in stocks, he said.
"Keep in mind, very strong seasonality right now in November and December causes investors to look past the myriad of more telling macro concerns that are out there," Ross said, referring to a strong U.S. dollar and weak commodities prices. "Slow earnings are an issue when your chart is in stall speed ... at the tail end of a very old bull market here in need of some further correction."
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