NEW YORK (Reuters) - Earnings of companies in the benchmark S&P 500 index are expected to decline in the fourth quarter from the year-earlier period, which would mark a second straight quarterly profit drop, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.
As of Tuesday, earnings for the group were expected to fall 0.1% from the 2018 fourth quarter, analysts’ forecasts compiled by Refinitiv showed. The latest estimate for the period contrasts with the 11.5% increase projected at the start of the year and the 4.1% growth projected as of Oct. 1.
Third-quarter earnings, with results in from almost all the S&P 500 .SPX companies, are estimated to have declined 0.4% from a year ago, based on Refinitiv's data.
Two straight quarters of year-over-year profit declines would mark an earnings recession. The last time that occurred was from July 2015 through June 2016, which dovetailed with a broad run of stock market underperformance.
But the fourth-quarter number is likely to change once companies report results, since many companies tend to beat conservative profit expectations, making it possible that the quarter will end with positive earnings growth.
Earnings have struggled this year after last year’s tax-fuelled gains and on worries about the U.S.-China trade war, but many strategists think the third or fourth quarter will be the trough for the current cycle.
Profit estimates have deteriorated in recent weeks even as the stock market has risen to record highs.
“Over the last month, the market has had more certainty there’s going to be some sort of trade deal,” said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment strategist at Inverness Counsel in New York, but he said companies have been more cautious and that uncertainty is reflected in their guidance.
“Earnings are what ultimately drive stock prices over the medium term or longer term,” Ghriskey said.
Analysts had projected earnings declines for the first and second quarters of 2019 as well, but those periods ended with modest profit growth, based on Refinitiv data.
Economically sensitive companies - industrials .SPLRCI, energy .SPNY, consumer discretionary .SPLRCD and materials .SPLRCM - are forecast to have the biggest year-over-year fourth-quarter profit declines among sectors, while the heavily weighted technology sector .SPLRCT is expected to have just a 0.5% increase, based on the data.
Graphic - S&P 500 earnings by quarter since 2015: here
Reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Richard Chang and Leslie Adler