Updated from 5:43 p.m. ET to add commentary on April historically being the best month of the year. NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- If you thought meager earnings growth in the first quarter was going to derail this rally, think again. The low bar theory is already making the rounds as Citigroup pointed out Monday that 2% year-over-year growth for the S&P 500 is "not hard to beat," and said it expects corporate earnings to top the current consensus view by 3.5%. The firm is less optimistic about later in the year though, saying the expectation for 16% growth in the fourth quarter is "far more questionable." In fact, Citigroup expects "no EPS growth acceleration in coming quarters," i.e. the rest of fiscal 2012, and said it believes estimates for the energy sector in the latter part of the year may be too high. "
T he 43% gain projected for the sector by 4Q 2012 appears to require at least a 10% rally in industrial commodities prices from current levels," the firm said, adding later: "The rise in the oil price -- in the absence of recession -- is likely the largest upside risk to our estimates overall given an S&P Energy sector weight that is triple energy's share of U.S. income." The estimates may vary -- Thomson Reuters data puts expected earnings growth for the S&P 500 at 3.2% in the first quarter, while the S&P Capital IQ sees the growth rate at just 0.9% -- but the message is the same: This reporting season will be a bit restrained. Whether the bulls can turn that into a positive remains to be seen. Companies have wrung all the profits they can out of the cost-cutting efforts prompted by the financial crisis, and now need to start growing the top line again. The economy is cooperating but not exactly going gangbusters with the unemployment rate still elevated and the housing market arguably at a bottom but not yet showing significant price appreciation. First-quarter results may get a pass, and guidance could steal the spotlight. After all, fourth-quarter earnings season wasn't that great, and stocks hummed right along with the S&P 500 delivering its best first quarter in more than a decade. Earnings grew 9.2% year-over-year in the quarter, according to Thomson Reuters, which said 62% of companies beat the consensus view, the lowest rate in three years.
The bears will argue that the great rally of 2012 is another mirage created by the Federal Reserve and its quantitative easing efforts, augmented by the singular success of Apple ( AAPL). In that case, the end of Operation Twist in June looms the way QE2's wind-down did at the same time last year. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has been sending some mixed signals of late on the central bank's view of the health of the economy, keeping the prospect of another round of bond buying within the realm of possibility. If that doesn't come to pass, however, investors will start to focus on earnings at some point, and clearing a low bar isn't likely to be enough to justify a higher multiple. In the near-term though, the trend is being awfully friendly, and stocks have history on their side. Since 1945, April has been the second-best month of the year for the S&P 500, which has risen an average of 1.6%, behind only December's 1.8% advance. The market has also posted gains in 70% of Aprils since World War II, according to S&P Capital IQ. Conversely, when April goes bad, it's been known to go really bad with the S&P 500 losing more than 5% in three instances, 1962, 1970 and 2002. As for Tuesday's scheduled news, investors will get another glimpse into the Fed's thought process with the release of the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's last policy meeting in mid-March at 2 p.m. ET. RDQ Economics gave a rundown of Bernanke's recent public appearances on Monday, saying the chairman has been "downplaying the strength of the recovery and the improvement in the labor market and has argued for a continued ultra-easy stance of monetary policy." The firm thinks Bernanke may have a tough time maintaining its pledge to keep rates low until late 2014, mainly because it believes that headline GDP growth has been a bit muted so far. RDQ points to the income estimate of real GDP which has been "significantly stronger" than the spending measure that gets most of the attention. "We have been more firmly wedded to the income estimate of GDP, the labor market, and industrial production as measures of the vibrancy of U.S. economic growth rather than focusing on the expenditure estimate of GDP and we see the economy as being stronger than the Chairman does," RDQ said. "If we are correct in this view, we do not see how the Fed remains on hold until late 2014." The earnings calendar is light once again with Comverse Technology ( CMVT), Conn's ( CONN), International Speedway ( ISCA) among the few companies opening their books. Aside from the Fed minutes, the market will get factory orders for February at 10 a.m. ET. The consensus estimate, according to Briefing.com, is for an increase of 1.4% vs. a decline of 1% in January. If Monday's positive read on manufacturing activity is any indication, an upside surprise could be in the offing. -- Written by Michael Baron in New York. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Michael Baron.