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Market Preview: The Earnings Trap

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Is it too early to start worrying about third-quarter earnings just yet? Apparently not.

With the major U.S. equity averages hovering at multi-year highs and quantitative easing all the rage among the world's central banks, questions about valuations are starting to be asked. After all, profits -- not bond-buying programs -- are historically the bedrock method for placing a value on a public company, and the expectations for the third quarter are ugly.

According to Thomson Reuters, the consensus view is for a year-over-year decline of 2.2% in earnings for the S&P 500 in the third quarter. That's down from an expectation for growth of 3.1% as of July 1. What's more, the firm says company guidance is the worst it's been in more than 10 years with negative pre-announcements outpacing positive ones by a 4.2 -to-1 ratio.

Nearly half (49%) of the companies issuing warnings cited Europe as a factor for their lower view while other reasons included the impact of the strong U.S. dollar, commodity prices and seasonality.

Citigroup observed Wednesday that there's no reason to expect all this liquidity being pumped into the markets by central bankers to flow to the company bottom lines anytime soon.

"With the help of the ECB and the Fed, global equity markets are now close to, or through, their highs for the year, the firm wrote. "While central banks have supported risk appetites, we are not sure they will be able to support corporate profits."

S&P Capital IQ was of a similar mind, asking how many bullish catalysts remain for stocks now that all the QE bazookas have been fired. With earnings growth stalling, the firm said the uptrend is relying on expansion of price-to-earnings multiples.

" T he Capital IQ consensus sees Q3 S&P 500 EPS falling 1.8% Y/Y, and while companies will likely again exceed a low bar, we think results will probably be subdued as will guidance," S&P said. And with the Street calling for an EPS growth acceleration to 10.1% and 11.8% in Q4 and CY '13, respectively, it's no wonder investors are antsy, especially given the anemic trends in European, Asian and to a lesser extent, U.S. economic data."

The firm, which has a year-end target of 1500 for the S&P 500, thinks mid-single digit growth in earnings per share in the fourth quarter and fiscal 2013 should be enough to allow stocks to continue to push higher "as macro uncertainty keeps receding from sky-high levels" and sees the upcoming U.S. presidential election as giving stocks a boost by removing another big question mark.

"The last 100 points of the S&P's rally have largely come from P/E expansion due to receding macro uncertainty in Europe and in Fed policy - not stellar EPS growth - and we see this macro-driven rally continuing with an end to electoral uncertainty on Nov. 6," S&P said. "Since 1900, 63% of all election year annual highs have come in November and December; since 1975 it's 67%. While history obviously isn't gospel, we think this year's abnormally high electoral uncertainty means ending it will likely allow 2012 to follow history's bullish script."

As for Thursday's scheduled news, Oracle (ORCL - Get Report) is slated to report its fiscal first-quarter results after the closing bell. The average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for a profit of 53 cents a share in the August-ended period on revenue of $8.42 billion.

The stock has done well in 2012, rising more than 25%, but it also hasn't been able to punch past a 52-week high of $33.81 that dates back to Oct. 27, 2011 and the forward price-to-earnings multiple of 11.3X is pretty low for a tech bellwether, illustrating there is still some reluctance to award the company much of a premium as it's been working through issues with its sales force over the past few quarters and facing heavy competition in the cloud.

The sell side is still predominantly positive on Oracle with 32 of the 44 analysts covering the shares at either strong buy (11) or buy (12) and the median 12-month price target at $35 but the stock

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