Earnings Season Shows Diverging Sector Trends

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The S&P 500 pushed ahead with the benchmark index probing territory above 1690 for the first time in history. Two factors are propelling prices higher: Investors are re-aligning their positions for the increasingly likely continuation in Fed stimulus past the previously expected September reduction point.

The second factor is supportive corporate earnings, which have beaten market expectations in a majority of cases. From a macro perspective, additional bullish factors can be seen in the decision by the People's Bank of China to eliminate the floor in bank loan rates, which is positive for global sentiment. Taken together, these factors have supported stock values and sent the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust ( SPY) to record highs near 170.

But while these factors are supportive for most stock sectors, there are some portions of the S&P 500 that are lagging on a relative basis, and this points to discouraging trends in specific industry groups. Significant earnings misses have already been seen in large-cap tech companies. If this does, in fact, point to disappointing trends in the tech sector it makes sense for investors focused on indices to favor instruments like the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust over options like the PowerShares QQQ Trust ETF ( QQQ), which tracks the value of the tech-heavy Nasdaq.

Per-share earnings performances in companies in the S&P 500 have beaten analyst expectations in 73% of the reports released so far this season. On the revenue side, these companies have beaten analyst estimates 53% of the time. But last week we saw additional reports from tech companies that fail to match these positive trends. Last week's examples of this divergence can be found in positive results from General Electric ( GE), which were strong enough to take some of the negative attention away from Google ( GOOG) and Microsoft ( MSFT), where significant earnings misses were seen.

Strong quarterly results at GE were based on record order backlogs and heightened demand for drilling equipment and jet engines, and this sent the stock to its highest levels since 2008. Google, on the other hand, is seeing selling pressure as the consumer shift toward mobile devices is hurting the company's average advertising prices. Google's average cost-per-click dropped by 6% in the second quarter, as ad marketing continues to gravitate toward users of smart phones and tablets, rather than desktop PCs.

Misses at Microsoft were even more pronounced, with the company posting its biggest earnings miss in a decade. The disappointment was driven by weakening PC demand in conjunction with a lackluster response for the company's Windows 8 operating system. Additional tech disappointments were seen at Advanced Micro Devices ( AMD) and Intel ( INTL).

Given these large-cap disappointments, it is not surprising to see that earnings results from tech companies are the weakest among the 10 industry groups that make up the S&P 500. So far, 17 companies in the sector have released quarterly reports. On average, those reports have disappointed Wall Street estimates by 3.6%, and analyst projections show an 8% decline in expected profits for companies in the sector. Projections for the S&P as a whole, while not overly impressive, are still positive at 2.4%.

Overall performance in the S&P 500 has been impressive so far this year. But without significant earnings misses from tech giants, these gains could have been much stronger. If these results are any indication of the broader trends we will see going forward, the S&P 500 should outperform assets that are heavily exposed to the tech sector, with the Nasdaq itself being a key example to watch for the rest of the quarter.

At the time of publication the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Richard Cox is a university teacher in international trade and finance, focusing primarily on macroeconomics and price behavior in equity markets. His articles appear on a variety of websites, including MarketBulls.net, Seeking Alpha, FX Street, and others. Investing strategies are based on technical and fundamental analysis of all the major asset classes (stock indices, currencies, and commodities). Trade ideas are generally based on time horizons of one to six months.

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