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Best corporate profit growth since 2011 competes with geopolitical pressures on markets

  • Earnings growth of 10.4 percent is expected for the first quarter, best since 2011
  • S&P 500 down 1.1 percent in week through Thursday as geopolitical worries grew
  • Bond market and gold were big winners in past week, as investors sought safety
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on January 5, 2017.
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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on January 5, 2017.

The earnings season kicks off with expectations for the best profit and revenue growth since 2011, but the stock market may be on the defensive in the coming week as traders watch geopolitical events.

Sixty-five companies in the S&P 500 report, including United Continental on Monday; Goldman Sachs and Johnson and Johnson on Tuesday; BlackRock and American Express on Wednesday; Verizon and Travelers on Thursday, and General Electric and Honeywell on Friday.

There is also housing data, including housing starts Tuesday and existing home sales Friday.

But more important will be how the markets shake off the action of the past week, and whether any other factors that could upset markets are lurking.

The winners in the past week, through Thursday, were bonds and gold, as investors looked for safety amid worries about North Korea's missile program, the U.S. bombing in Syria, the French presidential election and the frosty relations between the U.S. and Russia. On Thursday, NBC News reported that the U.S. may launch a preemptive strike against North Korea if officials suspect the nation will carry out a nuclear weapons test.

Stocks sold off, with the worst daily performance Thursday since March 21. The S&P 500 was down 1.1 percent for the weekat 2328. Both the S&P and Dow broke below their 50-day moving averages, a negative sign for some traders.

The 50-day moving average is the average of the last 50 days of closing prices, and technical strategists look at a close below that average as a set up for a potential sell-off.

"We challenged the 50-day moving averages and now we are re-challenging it. If we break below it on a meaningful basis, I think the market might test the 200-day moving average. The unpredictability of geopolitics is making it so hard. It's causing people to say maybe I'll shoot first and ask questions later," said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA. The 200-day is at 2,292.

Treasury yields came down during the week, with the 10-year Treasury yield falling through a range it's been in since just after the election. The 10-year was at 2.23 percent late Thursday, well below the 2.37 percent it was at last Friday and below the 2.30 percent bottom of its five-month 2.30 to 2.60 percent range. Gold futures for June gained 0.8 percent in the four day week to settle at $1,288 per ounce, the highest settle since just before the election on Nov. 4.

"It's a flight-to-safety. It is a measure of investor uncertainty," said Stovall. He said the break in the S&P 50-day, gold's move below its 200-day moving average and the break in the 10-year yield are all pointing to the same nervousness. "They are confirming each other ... the rotation into hard assets, the rotation into bonds, and ... the softness of the dollar, that's pointing to the uncertainty related to what essence is the trigger right now. The trigger is international events."

Stovall said normally, the market is sometimes soft leading up to the earnings period, but then improves. "You see the lowering of the bar by companies. You see a weakening of share prices. We're expecting first quarter earnings to be up by about 10 percent," he said, adding that earnings on average have been beating forecasts by about 3.5 percent.

This earnings season has been anticipated as a potential positive catalyst for stocks because of the strong 10.4 percent growth expected for S&P 500 companies for the first quarter. According to Thomson Reuters, that is slightly better than the 10.3 percent in the third quarter of 2014, and the best since the 18 percent in the third quarter, 2011. Revenues are expected to be up more than 7 percent, also the best since 2011.

"We want to hear from companies to what extent confidence is articulated or how much is being translated to real growth," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at Lindsey Group.

What to Watch

Monday

Earnings: Netflix, United Continental, JB Hunt, M&T Bank, Celanese, Barracuda Networks, Pinnacle Financial

8:30 a.m. Empire State manufacturing

10:00 a.m. NAHB survey

4:00 p.m. TIC data

Tuesday

Earnings: Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Johnson and Johnson, UnitedHealth, Charles Schwab, Comerica, Yahoo, Harley-Davidson, Progressive, Omnicom, GNC Holdings, Intuitive Surgical,

8:30 a.m. Housing starts

8:30 a.m. Business leaders survey

9:15 a.m. Industrial production

Wednesday

Earnings: BlackRock, Morgan Stanley, American Express, eBay, Morgan Stanley, US Bancorp, TD Ameritrade, Textron, CSX, Canadian Pacific Railway, Qualcomm, Abbott Labs, Steel Dynamics, SLM

2:00 p.m. Beige book

Thursday

Earnings: Travelers, Verizon, Blackstone, Philip Morris, ABB, Bank of NY Mellon, Alliance Data, PPG Industries, Imax, MGIC Investment, KeyCorp, Nucor, Janus, Visa, Sonoco Products, Sherwin-Williams, Mattel, NCR, Danaher

8:30 a.m. Weekly claims

8:30 a.m. Philadelphia Fed

Friday

Earnings: General Electric, Honeywell, NextEra Energy, Kansas City Southern, Schlumberger, Rockwell Collins, Stanley Black and Decker, SunTrust, Morningstar, Steve Madden

9:45 a.m. Manufacturing PMI

10:00 a.m. Existing home sales