Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Corporate profit ride turning into a train wreck

Jeremy Siegel: Higher earnings key to higher markets

If the stock market rally is going to continue the next couple of months, it will have to do so against an aggressively worsening profit backdrop.

The corporate earnings picture is ugly and getting uglier in a hurry, with companies expected to post an 8.3 percent decline in first-quarter profits from the same period a year ago. While history suggests that earnings season always ends up looking better at the end than it did at the beginning, if the current trend holds up it will be the worst period since the third quarter of 2009, according to FactSet.

At a time when the stock market has just recently erased its losses for the year and bounced out of correction mode, the worsening earnings picture presents a formidable headwind. After all, analysts at the beginning of 2016 actually had been projecting a modest 0.3 percent earnings increase.

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That outlook has changed rapidly, triggering concern that the recent market uptick, featuring a gain in the S&P of nearly 7 percent over the past month, could fade amid renewed concerns over corporate America.

"One thing that probably slows us down in this move is certainly the realization that we don't have robust earnings growth," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities. "At some point we will come to an inflection point where that starts growing again. But that's not happening in this quarter."

Unlike previous quarters where the damage was confined largely to energy and, to a lesser extent, materials, the profit declines are widespread.

Just three of the S&P 500's 10 sectors are projected to show growth for the quarter, with telecommunications expected to climb 13.5 percent as the biggest gainer and discretionary next at 10.3 percent, according to FactSet. However, telecom is the smallest S&P 500 sector by market cap, making up just 2.8 percent of the index. Energy is tracking as the worst sector, with a 97 percent decline expected. The category comprises about 7 percent of the index, according to S&P Capital IQ.