NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Bank stocks have been on a roll since October of last year. That suggests fourth-quarter earnings, which kick off Friday with JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) will get closer scrutiny than they have for some time.

Goldman Sachs analysts argue that the newfound bullishness appears to be driven more by a positive macro outlook than issues specific to bank earnings. The analysts point out that consensus earnings estimates in the quarter "have been relatively neutral."

Certainly merger and acquisition activity, something we won't address in this report, has been a contributor to sector bullishness, particularly on weaker names perceived to be ripe for a takeover.

Take Synovus Financial ( SNV), for example, a frequently talked about acquisition candidate, up 36% since the start of December. That compares to a gain of 17% for SPDR KBW Regional Banking ( KRE) an exchange traded fund that tracks regional banks, and 14% Hudson City Bancorp ( HCBK), a conservative lender thought to be a more likely acquirer than a target.

When it comes to individual bank performance, however, there is reason for caution, according to the view of Goldman's analysts.

"Expectations appear to be elevated heading into 4Q earnings, with investors hoping for further clarity on mortgage put-backs, signs of loan growth expected to reemerge, continued credit improvement and updated capital deployment plans," Goldman analysts Richard Ramsden, Ryan Nash and Daniel Paris wrote in a recent research report. They highlighted JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), Bank of America ( BAC)and Citigroup ( C) as their top picks going into fourth quarter earnings.

Deutsche Bank analysts appear somewhat more bullish, on the other hand. They expect 10 of the 18 banks they follow to beat expectations, partly because they see credit improving faster than many analysts expect, and partly because they believe the bar has generally been set too low.

In a Jan. 4 report, Deutsche Bank highlighted Fifth Third Bancorp ( FITB), BB&T Corp. ( BBT), Hancock Bancorp ( HBAN), JPMorgan, Citigroup and SunTrust Banks ( STI) as companies where they see the biggest "potential for upside surprises, though they list their top picks as JPMorgan, Wells Fargo ( WFC) and TCF Financial Corp. ( TCB).

"Primary downside industry risks include declines in real estate prices and economic weakness. Upside risks include a faster-than-expected economic recovery, rising home prices and a more favorable political landscape," Deutsche's analysts wrote in their report.

Here's a breakdown of five key issues to watch out for as the banks report their numbers.

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