By Dee Gill
The numbers this corporate earnings season have been solid enough, but the words accompanying them are worrying Wall Street. A preponderance of unconvincingly positive commentary and outright negative guidance offered by major corporations ranging from Apple (AAPL) and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) to Citigroup (C) and Chevron (CVX) has helped drag down the S&P 500 more than 5% so far this year. Confirmations that the days of recession-induced issues have past - reassurances investors had expected to get this January - have been rare.
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Some 82% of companies issuing first-quarter guidance this earnings season lowered their forecasts, according to a FactSet Research report of the 251 companies that had announced earnings by the season's recent mid-point. Only 10 companies, or 44 of the 54 that issued guidance, upped their estimates.
Those warnings have caused sell-offs in numerous shares recently even in companies that met or beat their fourth quarter 2013 numbers as the vast majority of companies have. Apple's results topped analyst estimates. But its iPhone sales disappointed, as did its first-quarter revenue forecast. Revenue guidance was revised down to revised to between $42 billion and $44 billion, versus analysts' estimates of $46.05 billion. The shares are still down about 7% since the announcement.
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Fourth quarter profits at Wal-Mart also beat forecasts, but any joy from that was wiped out by a slight downward revision in its first quarter earnings guidance.
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Goldman Sachs Group (GS), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Wells Fargo (WFC) and Morgan Stanley (MS) all beat Wall Street profit estimates for fourth quarter earnings. They also each offered vaguely upbeat messages like the one from JPMorgan Jamie Dimon's "increasingly optimistic about the future" statement. But after getting at some of the accounting tricks behind those earnings beats, the market grew suspicious about the Financial Services Sector's outlook. More forthright statements from Citigroup seemed more convincing and broadly applicable. Citi noted a "challenging trading environment," a big fall in client volume and continuing high costs from the fallout of the financial crisis.
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Perhaps more worrisome for this year's market performance were the comments - or lack of them - from several big companies that actually missed estimates. Sysco (SYY), the company that supplies food to thousands of restaurants and cafeterias, noted that sales slowed as the fourth quarter progressed. Amazon.com (AMZN) didn't provide a lot of detail for its big earnings miss, but its newly-lowered first quarter guidance spoke volumes. Big profit drops and disappointing revenues from energy giants like Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) came with talk of 2014 as a transition year for the industry, with the problems of high costs and low production unlikely to fade soon. Dig into margins and costs and you'll see the Energy Sector is squeezed.
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Any first quarter hopefulness gained from the few optimistic reporters so far might fade quickly once the retailers start announcing their results. Target (TGT), Gap (GPS), Best Buy (BBY), Ross Stores (ROST) and Dollar Tree (DLTR) are among those expected to report earnings the last week of February.
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All signs point to less-than-happy talk about economic conditions from these messengers. FactSet reports that retailers' same-store sales rose 1.7% in the fourth quarter, down considerably from growth rates in the previous two quarters. Widespread winter storms since have limited store traffic.
One point of consolation for investors suffering in this earnings season: earnings reports from January 2013 started out with similarly depressing commentary from corporations, according to FactSet. Few investors carrying a broad market portfolio in that market complained about how the year ended.
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