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When the big guns started warning -- when not just those outfits with perennial problems but companies like McDonald's (MCD) and SCI (SCI) and Intel (INTC) said their third-quarter numbers would not be up to snuff -- it was pretty clear that there would be more shoes to drop. But Wall Street wasn't ready for Imelda Marcos' closet to come crashing down on it.

The pace of earnings warnings has been quick. There have been 303 so far this quarter, according to


-- more than in the third quarter of 1998, when the global economy was grappling with crisis.

Inevitably, people are looking for even more warnings to come. Case in point: Since the warnings from Intel,






, there have been rumors that



, too, would warn of a miss. Which makes a modicum of sense. Big Blue, after all, makes a chunk of change in the PC business, and it appears that PC sales have been slower than expected, particularly in September. It also books nearly 57% of its sales overseas, according to

Merrill Lynch's

quantitative group, making it vulnerable to the fall in the euro. Last month,

Goldman Sachs

lowered its revenue and earnings estimates for IBM's third and fourth quarters on currency concerns.

But all things come to an end. Most earnings warnings come out the two weeks before and one week after a quarter ends. Sure, there will be stragglers, but for most companies whose quarters ended Sept. 30, the time to warn is over. In fact, any company that warns now is in for a heap of trouble.

"I usually get the impression that they've been scrambling around," says I/B/E/S market strategist Joe Kalinowski, "looking for that extra penny to take onto the bottom line." Alternately, one gets the sense that such companies simply don't have a very good handle on their business. Neither situation reflects well on management.

Arguably, the managements at most major companies are better than that, if only because they know what will happen to their stocks if they do warn this late in the game. We're at the point where the actual reports are coming in, and, if the past is any guide, they will beat analyst estimates.

"Once the earnings start coming in, we have hard evidence," says

Lehman Brothers

senior strategist Charlie Reinhard. "We think it's going to be a good quarter." When guiding analysts, companies tend to keep the bar nice and low. As a result, earnings for the market as a whole are just about always better-than-expected. (

took a look at this phenomenon and more in a

Wednesday story.)

Earnings season is generally pretty good for the market, as it rolls with the good vibes from one positive report after another. Some caution, however, that the serotonin boost the market usually gets during this time may not be so sweet. The U.S. economy and the world economy both are slowing, and so earnings growth is slowing, too. It's an environment where companies may make their bottom-line numbers, but the quality of their earnings will not be as good. Wall Street will be tearing apart the numbers, and if it sees anything that it does not like -- channel-stuffing, swelling payables and the like -- it will not be kind. Company guidance on the fourth quarter will also matter, and any indication that growth cannot be maintained could also hurt.

"Just because we're out of the woods with preannouncements," says

Miller Tabak

equity strategist Peter Boockvar, "doesn't mean we're out of the woods with disappointment."

As originally published, this story contained an error. Please see

Corrections and Clarifications.