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The earnings calendar for companies' first-quarter reports gets busy this week, and the perennial excuse of companies blaming poor weather for bad earnings will carry a bit more legitimacy this year – which only means more weather-whining than usual.
Expect the sectors most directly affected by the weather – transportation, autos, retail, restaurants – to focus on the brutal winter, but they certainly won't be the only ones.
"It was the most disruptive winter we've had in some time," Ed Yardeni, president and chief investment strategist at Yardeni Research, told Barron's. "Anyone who can get away with a weather excuse for bad earnings will use it."
The earnings calendar unofficially kicks off with the report from Alcoa Inc. (NYSE: AA) after the markets close today (Tuesday), although 21 companies already have reported.
Most analysts foresee a rocky earnings season, and not just because of a winter that featured several appearances of a "polar vortex." The companies themselves have been revising their guidance downward for weeks.
Since January, 93 companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 have warned that their first-quarter numbers will fall short of estimates, compared to just 18 that have revised their guidance upward.
The reversal is starkly apparent in FactSet's periodic survey. Back in January, analysts said they expected corporate profits to increase 4.4%. But now analysts predict earnings will actually drop 1.2%, which would make it the first time operating profit has fallen year over year since Q3 of 2012.
The silver lining to the lowered expectations, of course, is that they will be easier to beat when it comes time to announce the actual numbers.
Of the 21 companies on the earnings calendar that have reported so far, just over half have beaten expectations on both sales and profits, which Savita Subramanian, head of U.S. Equity Strategy & U.S. Quantitative Strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, noted in a report this week were "higher than last quarter's 42% hit rate, and the best result from the early reporters since 1Q12."
And nine of the 21 cited the weather as hurting results, ranging from FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) and Costco Wholesale Corp. (Nasdaq: COST) to food maker General Mills (NYSE: GIS). FedEx CEO Fred Smith uttered the word "weather" no fewer than 41 times in the earnings conference call.
So while investors need to brace themselves for a blizzard of weather talk as we move through the earnings calendar's busiest weeks, what will move the stocks will be what companies say they expect to happen through the balance of 2014.