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Inside Q4 Earnings: Weak Guidance & Low Expectations, Except for Banks


One of the most common themes as we approach the heart of fourth quarter earnings season has been the plummeting growth rate. A shocking 74%, three-month plunge that has seen the expected expansion of profits for the S&P 500 shrink to just 2.4% from 9.2% amidst a swirl of pessimistic forecasts, a hurricane, a feisty election and that shameful debacle we call the fiscal cliff.

But what if the estimate retreat was actually only 6% instead of the dreadful 74%? Wouldn't that make things so much less gloomy? According to John Butters, senior earnings analyst at Factset, by one measure that's the case.

Related: Spoiler Alert -Q4 Earnings Estimates Are Too High

"If you look at the change in dollars, we've seen about a 6% cut in the expected earnings," he explains in the attached video. He says while the growth rate calculation is correct, the $2.00 dip in EPS estimates works out to about 6%. A decline he says is "in line with the previous five years... and a little bit worse than what we've seen on average over the past ten years."

Bottom line though is still the same and trailing estimates should be easy to beat once again for most sectors. However, the financial sector (XLF) is facing the highest bar with a growth forecast that's 8 times higher than the broader market. They're not only highest but they are also the biggest contributor too, Butters explains, noting that without the profit power of banks, the index growth with slump to only half a percent.

Related: Money in the Banks- Why Financials Are Everyone's Favorite Sector

What's more, Butters says an expected 40% drop in insurer profits is masking what would otherwise be 43% growth for the rest of the financial sector, with 5 of 8 industries expecting double-digit growth.

On the flip side, he points out that negative guidance was way above normal and that 71% of the comps gave a negative forecast. Nowhere was that pessimism more pronounced than in the tech sector (XLK) where he says an astounding 29 out of 32 companies, or 91%, issued negative guidance.

Ultimately what will move stocks isn't growth rates but how well companies do relative to expectations, both trailing and a forward looking basis.