Market Insider

Get ready for a rough corporate earnings season

Lackluster earnings season?
Lackluster earnings season?

Investors who thought the last few quarters' corporate earnings were bad could be in for an even worse shock when the numbers start rolling in for the first quarter of 2016.

According to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S, earnings are forecast to drop nearly 7 percent from the same quarter last year. If that were to happen, it would represent the third-straight quarter of year-over-year profit declines, which is already giving some experts a reason to say that corporate America is in an "earnings recession."

The estimated 6.9 percent decline in S&P 500 companies' earnings would follow a 2.9 percent forecasted earnings drop for the fourth quarter of 2015, and a 0.8 percent drop in the third quarter. As for revenue expectations, the forecast for a 1 percent decline would make it the fifth-straight quarter of year-over-year sales declines.

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What's been driving much of the decline in S&P 500 profits is no secret. The energy sector continues its losing streak, but this time, the estimate for profit declines adds a certain level of sticker shock. Oil and gas company profits are slated to fall by approximately 99 percent.

The steep market value losses sustained by the sector have diminished the overall weighting it carries in the index, but according to S&P Dow Jones Indices, it still had a 6.6 percent weighting as of the end of February. Given the severity of the expected fall in energy sector earnings, along with the weight the sector carries, overall S&P 500 profit declines would be limited to just 1.8 percent if the sector were excluded from calculations, versus the drop of 6.9 percent overall.

There's also no substantial help coming from the technology or financial sectors, the two biggest in the S&P 500. Tech profits are expected to fall by more than 5 percent, and financials are expected to drop by over 7 percent. If you're looking for a bright spot, there's the consumer discretionary sector, which is forecasted to show profit growth of over 14 percent, by far the best anticipated gain. The latest earnings growth estimates are presented in the table below.

Stock market bears will point out that the last time we saw these types of profit declines, for this length of time, was during the depths of the financial crisis. Thomson Reuters Senior Research Analyst Greg Harrison notes that we last saw three-consecutive quarters of profit declines between the third quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2009, when the streak stood at nine quarters. The bulls will note that the stock market rallied sharply from those depressed levels.

Of course, companies don't operate in a vacuum, and they will be impacted by bigger picture, or macro economic developments across the globe. Many economists are predicting a slowdown in U.S. and global growth.

However, with U.S. stocks now erasing their losses for the year, outright monetary easing by prominent , and a Fed that has signaled it may be more accommodative in its own monetary policies, the attention may now turn toward the health of corporate fundamentals.

Ultimately, traders and investors will be deciding which to emphasize, and whether or not central banking policies still have the efficacy they used to. It's important to note that the health of corporate earnings doesn't necessarily translate into stock market losses, but it may be another factor to consider before making the case for which direction the market is headed.

Earnings season unofficially kicks off the week of April 11, when companies including Alcoa and JPMorgan Chase report.