Market Preview: So Far, So Good

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- To put the recent run that stocks have enjoyed into perspective, Friday was the worst day of the year, and it wasn't all that bad.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down less than 100 points, bouncing nearly 60 points off its session low, and the S&P 500 gave back just 0.7%, falling less than 10 points. Befitting its theatrical roots, Greece continues to provide drama, but it's hard to fathom that Thursday's bull has completely transformed into Friday's fraidy cat.

More likely, folks riding the wave saw a reason to sell and took it, locking in some profits ahead of the weekend. There also may have been some technical forces at work. All in all, though, the "so far, so good" theme is still intact for 2012.

Earlier in the week, Brian Belski, chief investment strategist at Oppenheimer & Co., had argued that the U.S. equity market is still in a "transitional phase" and that "the relative stability of U.S. fundamentals and economic conditions will provide an attractive alternative compared to other more volatile assets around the world in 2012."

In a comment that appeared a bit prophetic given Friday's selloff, Belski added, "However, the path to positive returns in the U.S. will not take a smooth route."

Oppenheimer has a year-end target of 1400 for the S&P 500.

Aside from Europe, corporate earnings will be a major factor in how 2012 ultimately shapes up.

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In running down the ho-hum numbers for the fourth quarter, FactSet noted that analysts' expectations for the first quarter are pointing to the end of a nine-quarter streak of earnings growth.

"As of today, the estimated earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 dropped to 0.0%," wrote John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet, in commentary issued Friday. "The growth rate has steadily dropped from 8.0% on September 30 to 3.0% on December 30 to 0.0% today. Four sectors are predicted to see earnings growth in Q1 2012, while six sectors are predicted to see earnings decline."

For the fourth quarter, FactSet says 350 S&P 500 companies have reported, and 68% have beat the consensus view. That's slightly below the historical average of around 70% and should be taken with a grain of salt, given that around 20% of the companies warned ahead of their reports.

The average upside surprise is a pedestrian 3.8%, and FactSet notes that the earnings growth rate for the fourth quarter falls to just 0.8% when Apple ( AAPL) and AIG ( AIG) are excluded.

The good news is that analysts expect profits to pick up as the year wears on, thanks to growth in emerging markets and continued improvement in the U.S. economy.

Estimated earnings growth rates are expected to fall to 0.0%, 7.0% and 4.7%, respectively, in the first, second and third quarters of 2012, according to Butters.

But the rates for the fourth quarter of this year and the first quarter of 2013 are predicted to jump to 15.8% and 15.1%, respectively.

The trend does raise a legitimate question about how the first half of 2012 goes from here: Can stocks continue to rise if earnings go flat?

As for Monday's scheduled news, the economic calendar is bare, and the flood of earnings reports is slowing with only 50 S&P 500 companies expected to open their books over the course of the week.

Shares of Limelight Networks ( LLNW) have soared so far in 2012, rising more than 35% to close at $3.98 on Friday. That advance has erased some of the volatile stock's 2011 losses, but far from all of them.

The stock is still down more than 30% in the past year, ranging from a high of $8.58 in mid-February 2011 to a low of $1.95 in August.

The Tempe, Ariz.-based company, which competes with Akamai Technologies ( AKAM) in Web content delivery network technology, is reporting its fiscal fourth-quarter results after the closing bell, and Wall Street is expecting a loss of 2 cents a share in the December-ended period on revenue of $45.5 million.

Limelight forecast revenue of $44 million to $46 million for the quarter back in early November when it reported its fiscal third-quarter results.

Wall Street is on the sidelines, with eight of the 11 analysts covering Limelight at hold, and the 12-month median price target at $3.50.

Dougherty & Co. previewed the report earlier this week, and it's not expecting much as Limelight is still dealing with pricing pressure in the content delivery network market and has amped up capital spending in an attempt to keep pace with Akamai, which reported a better-than-expected profit on Feb. 8.

"We believe competitive pressures in the CDN market will make it difficult for the company to generate positive earnings in the forseeable future," said the firm, which reiterated a neutral rating on Limelight on Feb. 6. "The lack of profitability will lead, we believe, to a continued weakening of the company's balance sheet due to negative free cash flow. Given this view, we believe the stock is fairly valued at a 12-month price target of $3.50."

Check out TheStreet's quote page for Limelight Networks for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more.

Rackspace Hosting ( RAX) is also reporting its fourth-quarter results on Monday, and the average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for earnings of 15 cents a share on revenue of $281 million.

The buzz about the cloud has Rackspace shares up nearly 24% in the past year, and 14% in 2012 alone. The stock hit a 52-week high of $50.38 on Thursday and closed the week at $48.51.

All that appreciation has pushed the stock's forward price-to-earnings ratio to nearly 60, and the sell side is only slightly bullish ahead of the report. The 20 analysts covering the stock are divided between strong buy (5), buy (6), hold (8), and underperform (1).

The 12-month median price target is $48, but Evercore Partners set its sights much higher than that on Thursday.

The firm raised its target by 11.5%, to $58 from $52, and detailed its four reasons to like Rackspace: a belief that 2012 estimates are too low; improvements in capital efficiency at the company; building demand momentum for Rackspace's OpenStack cloud computing software; and a belief that the company's wholesale hosting capacity commitments "imply growth beyond what investors are imputing into the shares."

The firm added, "We continue to see RAX as one of the best positioned stocks in the data center services space -- backed by strong secular trends and a uniquely efficient service delivery model."

Evercore has an overweight rating on the stock.

Check out TheStreet's quote page for Rackspace Hosting for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more.

Other companies reporting on Monday include ArthroCare ( ARTC), Charles River Laboratories ( CRL), DayStar Technologies ( DSTI), Diebold ( DBD), Gen-Probe ( GPRO), Ivanhoe Mines ( IVN), LivePerson ( LPSN), Masco Corp. ( MAS), New Frontier Media ( NOOF), Stoneridge ( SRI) and Ultra Clean Holdings ( UCTT).

-- Written by Michael Baron in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Michael Baron.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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