NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Cheaper oil prices appear to have boosted corporate performance during the first quarter significantly more than Wall Street thought, helping Corporate America deliver earnings well ahead of what analysts predicted, says a senior investment strategist at UBS.

As of March 31, first-quarter earnings had been expected to fall 4.7% from a year ago, according to FactSet. With 447 companies in the S&P 500 reporting results, though, earnings have grown 0.1% instead.

"What probably was somewhat underestimated by analysts was the positive impact that lower energy costs would have," said Steve Freedman of UBS. "The bottom lines beat by a lot more than the top lines. The margins created these beats and energy costs may have been one of the factors helping margins."

About 71% of the companies beat average estimates on the bottom line, while 45% eclipsed forecasts on the top line, FactSet said. Oil prices have slumped more than 35% during the past year.

Meanwhile, Freedman is now neutral on U.S. equities, saying returns will likely remain in the single digits, in line with long-term averages. He likes the consumer discretionary, technology and industrials sectors.

"The more attractive places are abroad," he said. "We think the eurozone has a lot more potential. The recovery there is at an early stage, compared to a mature stage in the U.S."

In Europe, he likes the consumer sector, including discretionary and staples. "We also think financials have potential."

Plus, central bank intervention is first heating up in Europe, with the European Central bank embarking on a massive $1.2 trillion stimulus just two months ago.

In the U.S., the Federal Reserve is looking to pull back after almost seven years of policies such as quantitative easing and low interest rates, which aimed to boost economic activity after the financial crisis. Equity markets typically benefit when central bankers pump liquidity into the system, while returns drop on investments such as bonds and savings accounts.

The S&P 500 is up 2.6% since the start of the year, while the FTSEurofirst 300 Index, which tracks some of the largest companies in Europe, has added 16.6%.

 

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