Of the 20 S&P 500 companies that have provided Q4 guidance so far, 18 of them have guided lower, "slashing" their forecasts, according to Goldman Sachs and CNBC (as of Monday afternoon).
What's more, roughly one quarter of the reported earnings have come in flat to middling. According to Capital IQ, overall revenues are up only slightly at 0.34%.
Yet, for some reason the S&P 500 is only 3.89% off of its highs and is up 12.01% year-to-date through Wednesday afternoon.
Under the circumstances this suggests two things to me:
- There's a lot of volatility waiting in the wings; and,
- The near-term risk is to the downside.
The Q4 Earnings Story
So far this earnings season, roughly one quarter of the S&P 500 has already reported. That leaves the market with nearly 375 companies that have yet to spit out their numbers, roughly 150 alone this week.
Assuming the balance follows the pattern set so far, companies like Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE: CAT), Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM), and 3M Co. (NYSE: MMM) are going to show "respectable" (under the circumstances) numbers while talking about the "challenges" they see ahead.
Meanwhile, a few others, like DuPont (NYSE: DD) and United Technologies (NYSE: UTX), are going to reflect weakening earnings and revenue pressures leading to further cost-cutting as a means of protecting profits. These will include job cuts.
I also expect the bulk of the remaining companies will take the opportunity to lower their expectations -- especially when you consider that 61% of the companies as of Monday afternoon missed revenue expectations.
The irony here is that 61% of the companies that have reported over the same period have also exceeded analysts' expectations.
Naturally the markets will punish those who missed even when what they should recognize is that the analysts were wrong yet again. But that's another story for another time.
What's important to understand is that top-tier company management is using this earnings season to accomplish three things.