Coronavirus fears spoiled a solid earnings season and will further dominate markets ahead

Stock Market

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

The coronavirus outbreak ruined for investors what was a solid earnings reporting season and is casting a pall on forecasts for this quarter and the rest of this year. And now with most of the earnings season in the books, look for the latest coronavirus headlines to fill the vacuum and weigh on stocks the rest of the month.

Fourth-quarter profit growth for S&P 500 companies came in at 3.1%, and if the energy sector is excluded, the growth rate was 6.0%, according to Refinitiv. Just about four weeks ago, analysts expected a slight decline.

However, the deluge of solid corporate results was largely overlooked by investors who are focusing on the spillover impact from the coronavirus on U.S. corporations. Stocks post losses this week as a jump in confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths deepened concerns about slowing global economic growth. Major U.S. companies including Apple, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble have sounded alarms on the disease, warning of a dent in profits down the road.

“The virus is totally underrated,” CNBC’s Jim Cramer said on Friday. “What I think is a little too premature is they all presume that it is going to be solved within a foreseeable time frame. At what point do we say that many, many companies are going to be hurt by the virus [and] we’re paying too much for stocks.”

‘More cautious than usual’

Wall Street analysts have been quick to slash their earnings expectations for the next quarter in light of the fast-spreading virus. Expectations for earnings growth in the first quarter have been cut in half to just 3.2% from more than 6% at the start of 2020, according to Refinitiv.

Companies themselves are also lowering guidance for earnings growth in the near future. There have been more U.S. companies issuing below-consensus guidance for the next quarter than those with upbeat forecasts, marking the weakest ratio in a February since 2014, according to Savita Subramanian, head of U.S. equity and quantitative strategy at Bank of America.

“While guidance is typically weak in the first quarter as corporates set a low bar, it has been more cautious than usual this earnings season, likely due to the coronavirus,” Subramanian said in a note.

Nearly half of the S&P 500 companies have cited coronavirus during their earnings call this season, according to FactSet. These companies’ average revenue exposure to China is 7.2%, compared to 4.8% exposure for the average S&P 500 company.

As of Friday, China’s National Health Commission reported more than 75,000 confirmed cases and over 2,000 deaths on the mainland. South Korea has also reported more than 200 cases. Meanwhile, World health officials said the outbreak in Iran is “very worrisome.”

“Lost in those headlines is corporate America’s impressive performance this earnings season,” John Lynch, LPL Financial’s chief investment strategist, said in a note. “Companies have done an admirable job growing profits considering stiff headwinds.”

Week ahead calendar

Monday

Earnings: Shake Shack

10:30 a.m. Dallas Fed manufacturing

Tuesday

Earnings: Home Depot, Macy’s, Salesforce, Virgin Galactic, SmileDirectClub, RealReal

8:30 a.m. Philadelphia Fed non-manufacturing

9:00 a.m. S&P/Case-Shiller HPI

10:00 a.m. Consumer confidence

10:00 a.m. Richmond Fed survey

10:30 a.m. Dallas Fed services

Wednesday

Earnings: Lowe’s, L Brands, Square, Booking Holdings, Marriott, Etsy

10:00 a.m. New home sales

Thursday

Earnings: Best Buy, JC Penny, Beyond Meat

8:30 a.m. Initial claims

8:30 a.m. Durable goods

8:30 a.m. Real GDP (Q4 second reading)

10:00 a.m. Pending home sales

Friday

Earnings: Wayfair

8:30 a.m. Personal income

8:30 a.m. Advanced economic indicators

9:45 a.m. Chicago PMI

10:00 a.m. Consumer sentiment

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