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What to Expect From the Q1 Earnings Reporting Season

q1 earnings outlook

There are less than two weeks until the peak of the Q1 earnings reporting season gets underway, and it looks like it could be a good one. Several factors suggest the market rally can continue through the end of the period and perhaps until the end of the year. Among them are the fact that earnings are growing, the outlook for accelerating growth, and upward revisions to the numbers. The risks include the FOMC and interest rate cuts, slowly getting priced out of the market

A Bottom In Sentiment Could Turn Into A Tailwind 

The consensus figure for Q1 2024 S&P 500 (NYSEARCA: SPY) earnings growth reported by Factset has trended lower over the last year, but some signs in the data suggest the headwind is diminishing and may reverse course soon. 

The first is that earnings growth will persist in Q1 and 2024. This is an extension of a trend that began in 2023 and is expected to hold steady through 2025. The second is that earnings growth is expected to accelerate over the next four quarters and may exceed the current consensus. The S&P 500 tends to outperform each quarter's cycle-starting consensus figures by at least a few hundred basis points, which leads us to the third and perhaps most crucial factor: revisions. 

The S&P 500 tends to outperform each quarter’s consensus figure, but each quarter’s figure also tends to trend lower ahead of the cycle. This year, at least for now, the revisions' downtrend has stalled. The Q1 figure appears to have bottomed, while the Q2, Q3, and Q4 figures flattened and curved upward. If this continues, the S&P 500 will likely follow as increased earnings potential is priced into the market, but there is risk. Downward revisions may come if results and guidance fail to impress. 

EPS growth chart

Sector Results Will Be Mixed: AI to Lead Growth

Results will be mixed on a sector basis, with only seven of the eleven expected to produce growth. The upshot is that upward revisions have the number of sectors and companies expected to post growth rising compared to earlier in the period. Consumer Discretionary (NYSEARCA: XLY) is the number one beneficiary. It is expected to post the 2nd strongest EPS growth in the sector, and the consensus figure is up 1200 basis points in the last 90 days. 

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) is the driving force for growth and revisions in the Discretionary sector but strength is also seen in revisions for Nike (NYSE: NKE) and the cruise lines. Amazon is supported by consumer and tech spending: AWS is an increasingly large portion of the business and boosted by AI. 

Information Technology (NYSEARCA: XLK) saw the second-strongest revisions in Q1. It is expected to be the fourth-strongest sector in growth: the consensus is up more than 700 basis points since the start of the quarter, led by NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA). NVIDIA is expected to see its earnings grow by triple-digits; the consensus is up by 25% and may continue to grow ahead of the report. 

The FOMC Is a Threat to Earnings Growth

The FOMC threatens S&P 500 earnings growth because high-interest rates are cutting into consumer and business spending. The risk for the market is that the FOMC won’t cut rates this summer and alter the outlook for earnings. The latest inflation data was not cooperative, and the market is repricing the cuts now. The best chance for a single cut is now July, and it may move back, which means the economic pivot that will spur earnings growth may not align with market expectations. In this scenario, Q1 earnings reports may lead the market to new highs, but there is a risk that the S&P 500 will hit a top by June and correct over the summer. 

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