By Ryan Vlastelica
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock prices in the U.S. energy sector have been under pressure in 2015, and there could be more bad news to come when several key players report their fourth-quarter results next week.
The group has been falling alongside crude oil prices, which are down about 60 percent since June. That drop has led to not only weaker shares - the S&P Energy index (.SPNY) is one of the worst-performing groups of 2015, and it was last year's worst - but also sharply lower earnings estimates for both the current quarter and the full year.
To be sure, some see long-term strength in the sector, and energy names are among the most undervalued in the S&P 500 per StarMine's measurement of intrinsic value, which looks at anticipated growth over the next decade.
But in the near-term, many analysts feel the earnings revisions have not been severe enough, and that the bar, while lower, is still too high for companies to clear. Further disappointments could lead to continued weakness in the group.
Energy company earnings are seen tumbling 25 percent in the fourth quarter, according to Thomson Reuters data, a bigger decline than the drop of 19.8 percent forecast at the start of the year. For the full year, earnings are seen down almost 45 percent, nearly twice the decline of 23.3 percent forecast on Jan. 1.
Nick Sargen, chief economist at Fort Washington Investment Advisors in Cincinnati, said it was common for earnings worries to be assuaged as companies beat the lowered expectations, "but this time, we're getting validation of those worries."
The weakness in oil contributed to Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) missing profit forecasts by more than 20 percent this week. While some companies did top adjusted earnings forecasts, including ConocoPhillips (COP.N) and Occidental Petroleum (OXY.N), both companies slashed their 2015 exploration spending plans, a bearish signal about future growth prospects.
Heavy machinery maker Caterpillar Inc (CAT.N) also reported disappointing results this week, with oil's weakness weighing on its energy equipment division.
"In the past, we would have nervousness followed by a sigh of relief. This quarter I’m less sure we’ll get that sigh," said Sargen, who helps oversee about $48 billion in assets.
Oil's decline is seen as a positive for other sectors, and cheap gas prices contributed to strong recent readings of consumer sentiment. Since Jan. 1, earnings growth expectations for the S&P 500 overall have risen to 4.7 percent, from 4.2 percent.
The big name reporting next week is Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N). Since Jan. 21, seven of the 18 analysts with an earnings forecast for Exxon have revised estimates, according to StarMine, with forecasts dropping by an average of 5.5 percent. Two of three analysts with revenue outlooks have changed their views, with estimates falling 7.3 percent on average.
Anadarko Petroleum (APC.N), which also reports next week, has seen similar cuts to forecasts, with 23 of the 29 analysts with earnings expectations revising their views, for an average drop of 9.3 percent.
"Shell was the only company we expected to show profit growth this quarter, but it missed by quite a bit, which really raises concerns," said Brian Youngberg, senior energy analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis. "I wouldn't be surprised if estimates kept coming down."
(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Linda Stern and Nick Zieminski)