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Bank of America is one of the companies reporting earnings this week.

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Earnings season kicks off this week—and it may take some unusually impressive results for stocks to rise after them. 

Reports from

S&P 500
companies have been trickling in—only 21 companies in the index had reported through Monday—but this week marks the beginning of what is known as earnings season. Investors will hear from


Delta Air Lines

(DAL),


Walgreens Boots Alliance

(WBA), and UnitedHealth Group (UNH), plus, banking heavyweights JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Bank of America (BAC). It will provide a view of how businesses performed during the third quarter of 2021, and offer a glimpse into coming quarters as well.

Analysts are forecasting aggregate earnings per share on the S&P 500 to grow 24.5%, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Some of the most economically sensitive sectors are still expecting the largest rebound in EPS, as last year’s third quarter was still ravaged by partial lockdowns. S&P 500 industrial and material companies are expected to see 73% and 90% year-over-year growth, respectively, with energy expected to go from losses to profits. Two of the slowest growing sectors will be the traditionally non-volatile and highly stable consumer staples and utility sectors, expected to see EPS grow 3% and fall 2.9%, respectively. 

No matter the predicted growth, companies need to post big earnings beats in order for their shares to gain much. The S&P 500 has already risen 17.9% this year, as companies benefited from the unprecedented reopening following Covid-19 shutdowns and trillions of dollars of fiscal stimulus. As a result, valuations already reflect a large earnings stream, with the average S&P 500 stock trading at around 20.5 times 12-month forward earnings estimates, above the long-term average in the mid-teens. For the market to live up to those valuations, the index needs to beat expectations by at least 10% in order to rally into year-end, writes Nicholas Colas, co-founder of DataTrek. 

That won’t be easy. Nike (NKE) and FedEx (FDX), for example, posted mixed results as supply chain constraints and rising costs ate into sales and profit margins, causing the stocks to fall 6% and 9%, respectively, the trading day after their earnings reports. The size of earnings beats from early reporters has been shrinking as well. So far, early reporters have topped earnings forecasts by just 4%, well below the 23.2% and 15.5% during the second quarter in 2020 and 2021.

“We believe that economic headwinds will mitigate the benefits from pricing power and operating leverage, leading to less robust surprises in the third quarter,” writes Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. equity strategist at Credit Suisse. 

Earnings estimates have begun to reflect those headwinds. Third-quarter forecasts have fallen about 0.8% since the beginning of September. That may not seem like much, but if companies say they expect more difficulty accessing supplies and that higher costs are persisting, analysts could revise 2022 estimates lower. “This sets up the first earnings season in the recovery where earnings risk clearly exists,” writes Tavis McCourt, institutional equity strategist at Raymond James.  

The good news? The S&P 500 is down 3.8% from its Sept. 2 all-time high, so there’s a chance that some of the earnings risks are already reflected in the market.

The question is whether it’s enough.

Write to Jacob Sonenshine at jacob.sonenshine@barrons.com

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