Corporate earnings warnings are more negative than they've been in a year, but with all eyes on the war, the trend might go unnoticed -- until the war obsession fades, that is.

Although the so-called earnings confessional season hasn't yet run its course, first-quarter warnings are significantly worse than they have been in any of the last five quarters, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

Analysts worry that if earnings don't show any meaningful improvement soon, recent gains in the market -- fueled by the onset of war -- won't be sustained. The


has climbed almost 12% from its March 11 intraday low, and the


has jumped 11% from that time.

"Clearly, the market has rabbit ears on for news events out of the war, but when that is behind us, we'll go back to focusing on the same things," said Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist at Raymond James. "Most people still haven't caught on that this is not the typical business cycle. We don't have sufficient final demand to pull the economy forward, and the earnings aren't enough to energize the capital spending cycle."

Amid economic and war woes, the ratio of negative to positive preannouncements for

S&P 500

companies has hit 2.9 -- meaning that there are almost three times as many negative first-quarter warnings as there are positive ones. This time last year, the ratio for first-quarter preannouncements stood at 1.7.

It's worth noting, however, that the current ratio isn't dramatically above its long-term average of 2.5. "People are saying, OK, we're getting far more negative news than last year, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not that much worse than it normally is," said Joe Cooper, a research analyst at First Call.

Still, worsening earnings warnings aren't a good trend. "Eventually, earnings revisions will matter," said John Waterman, managing director of investments at Rittenhouse Financial. "To have this rally continue, we need to see earnings accelerate, and we need some more upward revisions."

Waterman said companies in his portfolio, such as those in the health care, consumer staples and financial services sectors, haven't issued an unusually high level of warnings so far. But other areas, like the industrials, utilities, transportation and consumer cyclicals, have suffered. Consumer cyclicals are stocks that are affected most by the ups and downs in consumer spending, and include retail, restaurants, hotels/gaming and newspapers, among others. In this group, negative warnings have outpaced positive preannouncements by more than 3 to 1.

Among companies warning so far are


(S) - Get Report


J.C. Penney

(JCP) - Get Report


Panera Bread



Darden Restaurants

(DRI) - Get Report


Marriott International

(MAR) - Get Report

also warned, as did

MGM Mirage

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Dow Jones



E.W. Scripps

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Positive announcements have come from

Best Buy

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Jack in the Box




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This week and next are expected to be the peak weeks for preannouncements, and the earnings floodgates will open around April 14, First Call says.

"Since consumer spending is the key to the economy for at least several more months before business spending could begin to accelerate, the warnings in this sector are ominous," said First Call's director of research, Chuck Hill. "The high level in the industrial sector is not surprising, but it does seem to run counter to the tech pattern."

In the industrial group, negative warnings have outstripped positive ones by more than 3 to 1, but the tech sector has been holding up well. Indeed, the pattern of revisions in this group is "typical of what you'd see in a normal environment," according to Cooper.

Regardless, Cooper said that there is likely to be "very little" earnings growth overall in the first three months of the year. Analysts currently are calling for profit growth of 8.5% in the first quarter, but if the energy sector is stripped out, that number goes down to just 2% growth, he said. "The effects in the energy area are masking what's going on in other areas."

Since Jan. 1, the expected first-quarter earnings growth for the oil group has climbed to 167% from 90%, as energy prices have soared. Consumer cyclical and technology stocks are expected to show earnings growth of 9% and 14%, respectively, in the first quarter. But utilities, industrials and transportation stocks will all show big declines from last year. Profits in the normally defensive health care and consumer staples will post just small gains of 4% and 1%, respectively, according to First Call.

"There is no question the economy has slowed down," said John Manley, an equity strategist at Salomon Smith Barney. He added, however: "I think people need to believe that the news on the earnings front is not systemic but a temporary affair." Manley said that while first-quarter warnings are important, investors would probably be more interested to hear what firms have to say about the second quarter and beyond when companies report first-quarter results.

Still, Saut of Raymond James is deeply concerned about the recent deterioration in first-quarter preannouncements, noting that the trend mirrors the pattern from last year. "It looks like it could be deja vu all over again," he said.