Corporate earnings raced past forecasts in the first quarter, sending markets jumping. So will the trend continue in the second quarter? Probably not, some say. Second-quarter earnings are expected to rise by 6% on average for companies in the S&P 500, down from 13% in the first quarter, according to Thomson First Call. The market-research firm also says warnings are significant: For every company expecting to meet its earnings goals in the second quarter, 2.1 have warned that they will miss estimates. Last year during the same period, the ratio was 1.2 to 1. Also, things look different this time around for the energy sector. Profits among oil companies are due to slow to a 33% growth rate in the second quarter, from 180% in the first three months of the year. Oil prices had spiked amid the war with Iraq, but have since subsided. Excluding gains in energy, companies are expected to see earnings grow by 4.3% on average this quarter. In comparison, earnings rose 5.9% in the first quarter without the help of oil companies. "Earnings came in much better than expected
in the first quarter , but certainly energy is part of the picture, and they won't get that same boost this time around," said Ken Perkins, research analyst at Thomson Financial. In the first quarter, 62% of companies beat analysts' earnings estimates. But Perkins pointed out that earnings in that period had a weak basis of comparison: First-quarter profit in 2002 dropped almost 12%, which made this year's first quarter look much rosier. In the second quarter of last year, earnings rose 1.4%. Also, projections were very low coming into the latest first quarter, with the ratio of negative to positive preannouncements at 2.8 to 1. Still, analysts say it's too early in the race to have a precise idea of how earnings will look by midyear, and the numbers can shift amid changes in the economy and the broader market. Investor sentiment is relatively high and stocks appear to be on an upswing, but the economy continues to falter, the job market remains in a slump and companies are still holding back on investment.