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Investors to Wall Street: We're not buying your bull anymore

Corporate America may have overplayed its hand when it comes to the earnings game.

With the first-quarter earnings season almost completely on the books, one of the biggest stories aside from the 7.1 percent decline in profits was that investors were less impressed than usual with companies that beat expectations. They have also been giving a harder time to companies that missed analyst estimates.

Taken together, the reporting season tells a story of investors both getting savvier about the collective lowering of the earnings bar, and growing more leery of market valuations.

"Companies have been very negative on their own earnings when they're giving guidance," said Greg Harrison, a research analyst at Thomson Reuters. "They've been really trying to push the bar down."

That bar went so low that it was pretty easy for most companies to clear it. With 87 percent of the S&P 500 reporting, 71 percent topped expectations for bottom-line profit, with 53 percent beating on the top-line revenue side, according to FactSet.

At another time, that might have been enough to give the market a big boost. Not this time, though. In fact the S&P 500 index is basically unchanged since earnings unofficially kicked off on April 11, despite nearly three-quarters of companies topping estimates.

One reason the market hasn't moved much is that companies beating estimates have gained just 0.6 percent from the two days before earnings to two days after — about half the normal return — while companies missing have seen price declines during the same period of 2.3 percent, slightly more than normal, according to FactSet.

In the day after a miss, the typical decline has been 1.6 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.

"The smart money has been wise to the game for a while," said Nick Raich, CEO of the The Earnings Scout, which tracks corporate profit trends. "The beats can be BS. There's some totally manufactured earnings surprises out there."

It hasn't always been so easy for companies to beat earnings. Going back more than a decade shows that the percentage of beats was more often in the 50s than the 70s. However, that's changed sharply. The last time fewer than 60 percent beat estimates was the fourth quarter of 2008 during the Great Recession, and the last time before that was the second quarter of 2002, Thomson Reuters records show.

As companies continue to try to dim expectations and analysts follow suit, earnings projections have become less significant.

Instead of paying attention to backward-looking earnings reports, savvy investors have been watching the outlook for the future and rewarding companies that express optimism while punishing those with weak forecasts, Raich said.

"It's all about the revisions," he said. "The surprises are manipulated and backward looking. The companies that had the best guidance are the ones outperforming."