UPDATE 1-Oil price spike clouds corporate profit outlook, puts investors on edge

David Randall

edge@ (Updates story published early on Wednesday with U.S. market open)

NEW YORK, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Investors are worrying that rising energy costs, due to an escalating conflict between the United States and Iran that has caused a spike in oil prices, will hurt U.S. corporate earnings.

While the energy sector would benefit from higher oil prices, other sectors ranging from shipping to manufacturing to restaurants would see their profit margins narrow as gasoline prices rise. Some investors said they were acting more defensively against this backdrop.

"Oil is still not prohibitively expensive, but it's significantly more expensive than it was when companies were making their budgets a year ago," said John LaForge, head of real asset strategy for Wells Fargo Investment Institute. "They might have the ability to pass it on or they might not, but overall there is going to be a hit to margins."

Though, at $70 a barrel, the price of oil remains far below the level that would send the United States into an immediate recession, higher energy costs at a time of heightened geopolitical risks are likely to leave investors and companies skittish, fund managers and analysts said.

Over the last year, the price of oil has jumped nearly 25% according to Refinitiv data, raising costs for companies across the economy and leaving less money in the pockets of consumers.

The conflict between the United States and Iran escalated early on Wednesday with a retaliatory Iranian missile attack https://www.google.com/search?q=Trump+orders+drone+attack+Reuters&rlz=1C1GCEBten U S 8 6 8 U S 8 6 8 & o q = T r u m p

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Yet, oil futures fell from 4-month highs after tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump and Iran's foreign minister seemed to signal that further military action was not forthcoming . Trump had ordered a drone strike https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-security/trump-vows-to-hit-52-iranian-ta r g e t s - i f - i r a n - r e t a l i a t e s - a f t e r - d r o n e - s t r i k e - i d U S K B N 1 Z 4 0 0 3 on Friday that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

The benchmark S&P 500 index opened with modest gains in early trading Wednesday.

First-quarter earnings of companies in the S&P 500 are expected to rise 6.2% from a year earlier, according to estimates from Refinitiv made before the recent jump in oil prices. Those estimates were largely based on assumptions that economic growth will rebound in 2020, though corporate earnings are expected to have fallen by 0.6% in the fourth quarter of 2019. Companies will begin reporting results next week.

The likelihood that oil stays near current levels or moves higher will push more investors into a defensive crouch until it becomes clearer how companies are responding, said Barry James, a portfolio manager at James Investment Research.

"Stocks are not cheap and we've had this huge run-up and sentiment had gotten dangerously bullish," he said. "I would want to have at least a moderate position in energy if I didn't have any and some gold in my portfolio."

The attacks should serve as a wake-up call to investors who piled into stocks during the S&P 500's months-long rally, said Christopher Stanton, chief investment officer at San Diego-based Sunrise Capital LLC.

"We've had three months of asymmetric upward moves in the equity markets," he said. "Things have become increasingly overbought. If you're an investor, don't you want to take it easy here and back off a bit?"

Still, oversupply in the global oil market and the emergence of the United States as the world's top oil producer will likely keep oil below $75 a barrel. That's as long as the conflict between the United States and Iran does not escalate to the point where Iran attempts to close the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint through which about a fifth of the world's oil supply flows, LaForge said, as he put the price of oil in perspective.

"This is still a small move, historically speaking," he said. (Reporting by David Randall Additional reporting by Ira Iosebashvili; editing by Megan Davies, Leslie Adler and Bernadette Baum)