NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The post QE3/poor earnings season sell-off is suddenly getting serious.

Tuesday's steep drop marked the first time the Dow Jones Industrial Average booked two 200-point-plus declines within three sessions since late November 2011, and what's probably most concerning is that it was a messy pullback. The lack of a distinct catalyst implies an element of panic is creeping in.

Without much economic data to go on this week, there's really only been earnings to point to as far as U.S. corporate news goes, and as expected, earnings have been fairly shoddy. According to the latest Thomson Reuters data, 57.2% of S&P 500 companies have topped analyst profit expectations and just 37.2% have beaten the consensus revenue view vs. respective averages of 67% and 55% over the past four quarters.

But that's not a surprise and it's still based on a relatively small sample size with just 29% of the S&P 500 having reported. Not exactly an overriding reason to run for the exits. At least not yet. The blended estimate, combining analyst views and reported results, is pointing to a year-over-year decline of 2.4% in third-quarter results, just a bit worse than the 2.1% drop seen on Oct. 1.

Again, not good but not unexpected.

So that leaves the difficult task of quantifying the other simmering issues out there. Wall Street loathes uncertainty and that means the intervening weeks between now and the presidential election could be particularly rocky. Some of the sub-text of Tuesday's equity exodus was that Mitt Romney held his own in Monday night's debate with President Barack Obama, tightening up an already close race even further. That leads to discussion about what a Romney victory means for Ben Bernanke's future with the Federal Reserve and on and on it goes.

The political intrigue just adds to the growing fears about the fiscal cliff, the other big but vague hurdle that investors need to clear in order to be bullishness about the end of 2012. Who's confident that Washington, D.C. will be able to pivot quickly in the aftermath of a contentious election season? A show of hands?

The other big question mark is when and if Spain will ask for a bailout. As with everything with Europe these past few years, the progress is painstakingly slow and the headlines never really deliver much satisfaction.

It all adds up a messy pullback that's as difficult to explain as it is to explain away. And that in and of itself may be reason enough for many to take some profits.

As for Wednesday's scheduled news, AT&T Corp. ( T) is slated to report its third-quarter results before the opening bell and the average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for earnings of 60 cents a share in the September-ended period on revenue of $31.58 billion.

Shares of the communications giant are up more than 15% so far in 2012, despite earnings and revenue remaining relatively flat throughout the year. The company enjoyed a record sales day in the wake of the release of the iPhone 5 in mid-September, and the stock hit a 52-week high of $38.58 shortly after on Sept. 21. The trend in margins, however, has become a concern for the big wireless providers, so investors will be anxious for color on how AT&T fared ahead of the iPhone's arrival as well as what its expectations are for the remainder of the year.

The sell side is pretty down on AT&T ahead of the release with 26 of the 39 analysts covering the stock at either hold (24) or underperform (2). The 12-month median price target sits at $36.75.

Deutsche Bank, which has a hold rating and $34 price target on the stock, is in line with the consensus profit view.

"We are focused on 4 issues: (1) visibility on 4Q wireless margins based on expected smartphone sales (est 17.1M YTD vs. '12 guidance of 25M); (2) T's outlook for ARPU growth based on shared data plan adoption; (3) visibility on wireline enterprise revenue growth; and (4) uses of cash in coming quarters, including spectrum purchases, buybacks and capex," the firm said in its preview of the results on Tuesday. "We believe T's 5% dividend yield provides downside support, but we maintain Hold as we see limited upside potential to EPS estimates or P/E near term."

Check out TheStreet's quote page for AT&T for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more.

Also reporting Tuesday morning is another blue chipper, Boeing ( BA), which is expected to post third-quarter earnings of $1.13 a share on revenue of $20.03 billion.

In addition, the early docket includes American Electric Power ( AEP), Avery Dennison ( AVY), Brinker International ( EAT), Bristol-Myers Squibb ( BMY), Corning ( GLW), Delta Air Lines ( DAL), Dr. Pepper Snapple Group ( DPS), Eli Lilly ( LLY), EMC Corp. ( EMC), General Dynamics ( GD), Hudson Bancorp ( HCBK), Jones Apparel ( JNY), Kimberly-Clark ( KMB), Lockheed Martin ( LMT), Motorola Solutions ( MSI), Nasdaq OMX Group ( NDAQ), Northrop Grumman ( NOC), Six Flags ( SIX), Tupperware ( TUP), US Airways ( LCC), and Wyndham Worldwide ( WYN).

The late roster features Akamai Technologies ( AKAM), Cheesecake Factory ( CAKE), Citrix Systems ( CTXS), Fusion-io ( FIO), Skechers U.S.A. ( SKX), Tellabs ( TLAB), Tractor Supply ( TSCO), and Zynga ( ZNGA).

The big event on Wednesday's economic calendar is the conclusion of what's expected to be an uneventful policy meeting for the Federal Open Market Committee. This is the last meeting before the presidential election and there won't be a press conference with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke after the decision is announced at 2:15 p.m. ET.

After unveiling what's been dubbed never-ending QE at the September meeting, few fireworks are anticipated. There's speculation the FOMC could set the stage to start buying Treasury bonds after its Operation Twist maturity extension program runs out at the end of the year but that's about it.

"There is, at most, a small chance that the Fed could retool its forward looking guidance by adopting numerical thresholds for the unemployment rate and inflation," said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics. "With no post-meeting press conference scheduled for Chairman Bernanke to explain any changes, however, we suspect that even if a switch was coming, the Fed would wait until the mid-December meeting."

There's also the Mortgage Bankers Association's weekly mortgage application activity index at 7 a.m. ET; new home sales for September at 10 a.m. ET; the Federal Housing Finance Agency's housing price index for August at 10 a.m. ET; and weekly crude inventories data at 10:30 a.m. ET.

And finally, it was a busy after-hours session with Facebook ( FB) shares surging after the social networking giant delivered an above-consensus profit; Netflix's ( NFLX) stock tanking after the company gave a disappointing domestic subscriber forecast for the fourth quarter; and shares of SiriusXM Radio ( SIRI) taking a mild hit on news that Mel Karmazin plans to leave the CEO post in February 2013.

-- 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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