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Coming Week: Earnings Flood

Whether a two-week selloff has been justified should become a little clearer in the coming days, as a slew of companies release fourth-quarter earnings.

Some 76 S&P 500 companies are scheduled to release quarterly profit reports in the week ahead, including Yahoo! (YHOO), eBay (EBAY) and IBM (IBM).

Over the past week, analysts' estimates have been coming down despite good news from Apple Computer (AAPL) and Intel (INTC). According to Thomson First Call, earnings now are expected to rise 15.1% in the fourth quarter. At the start of November, analysts were looking for year-over-year growth of 15.7%.

John Waterman, managing director of investments at Rittenhouse Financial, said investors have grown accustomed to companies beating the consensus forecasts by a wide margin. "Earnings have been very good, so the bar is set high" for the fourth quarter, he said.

Unfortunately, more firms are likely to miss estimates this time around, he said, and there won't be as many positive surprises.

Waterman expects investors to rotate into large-cap names over the next few weeks, continuing a recent trend. Since the start of the year, the Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks has shed more than 5%, but the Russell 1000 index has fallen just 2.4%. In 2004, large-caps rose 9.4% on average while small-caps surged about 17%.

"Earnings are slowing, economic growth clearly is decelerating, and people will probably be less willing to buy riskier stocks," said Waterman.

Joe Liro, equity strategist at Stone & McCarthy Research, said concerns about the earnings season, rising oil prices and tension ahead of the Iraq elections on Jan. 30 all have hampered the market of late. Nymex crude oil recently moved back above $48 a barrel.

Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 0.4% while the Nasdaq Composite and S&P were down fractionally following sizable losses the week before. Some analysts said the performance is unsurprising, given strong gains for the major averages late last year. In the fourth quarter, the Dow, S&P and Nasdaq rose 7%, 9% and 15% respectively.

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