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S&P 500 rockets to new highs as earnings beat estimates

People silhouettes on American stock market index S P 500 - SPX.

Better-than-expected earnings growth is sending the S&P 500 to new highs. The uptick is driven by a diverse group of companies including Uber Technologies Inc.  (NYSE: UBER), CVS Health Corp. (NYSE: CVS), ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP)Hershey Company Inc. (NYSE: HSY) and Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS), all beating analysts’ earnings views. 

The latest earnings reports from S&P 500 companies, as a group, have surpassed expectations. The SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (NYSEARCA: SPY)

According to research from data analysis firm FactSet, there’s been a marked improvement in S&P 500 earnings per share since January 19. 

“The main reason for the improvement in earnings is that more companies have beaten EPS estimates and by a wider margin after January 19 compared to before January 19,” wrote FactSet’s John Butters.

He added that through January 19, in aggregate, S&P 500 companies had reported actual earnings that were 17.8% below estimated earnings. 

Big financials missed EPS views

Financials, which are typically among the earliest companies to report fourth-quarter results, “accounted for accounted for most of this below-average performance relative to estimates,” Butters wrote.

For example, JPMorgan Chase earnings reveal the financial giant missed earnings forecasts by 69 cents a share. The stock has rallied since its January 12 report.

Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC) earnings missed views by 86 cents per share. Wells Fargo stock has chopped around since its January 12 report, and is trading slightly higher in the weeks since.

On the positive side, insurance giant Chubb Ltd. (NYSE: CB) was among S&P financial stocks reporting a positive earnings surprise. Because it hails from an unglamorous corner of the financial sector, Chubb doesn’t get much attention, but the stock is up 8.43% in the past month, outpacing the broader market. 

10 S&P sectors reporting positive results

Since FactSet’s earnings calculations on January 19, more companies representing the other 10 S&P sectors have reported quarterly results. With those new results in, the index's performance relative to estimates has improved. 

Between January 19 and February 5, according to FactSet, 75% of S&P 500 companies have reported actual EPS above estimates. In aggregate, S&P 500 companies have reported actual earnings that exceeded estimates by 7.3%.

“As a result, ten of the eleven sectors now have higher earnings growth rates (or smaller earnings declines) today compared to January 19, led by the Information Technology, Energy, Health Care, and Consumer Discretionary sectors,” according to FactSet. 

Technology stocks contributed the most to the increase in earnings, with positive earnings surprises coming from tech titans including Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT), Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL), Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) and Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC).

Energy, healthcare, and consumer stocks beating EPS forecasts

Among energy stocks, companies with positive earnings surprises included Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), Marathon Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: MPC) and  Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX).  

The healthcare sector is the third-largest contributor to this increase in earnings, accounting for about $2.4 billion of the net increase in earnings of $16.0 billion, according to FactSet. 

Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) continues to lag the Health Care Select Sector SPDR Fund (NYSEARCA: XLV) and the broader S&P 500, but it did manage to beat earnings views by a good margin when it reported on January 30.  

When it comes to consumer discretionary stocks, Inc. earnings (NASDAQ: AMZN) topped analysts’ views by 19 cents a share, a significant contributor to the overall S&P earnings increase. 

From the communications services sector, Meta Platforms Inc. (NASDAQ: META) and Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL) exceeded analysts’ earnings forecasts for the fourth quarter. Because they’re so heavily weighted in the S&P 500, they were significant contributors to the index’s total increase in earnings since January 19. 

Market sentiment bullish, but use caution

The surge in earnings across the S&P 500 has not only defied earlier forecasts but also sparked a wave of bullish sentiment among investors, with the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (NYSEARCA: SPY) up 3.2% since the close on January 19. 

Although analysts are forecasting strong earnings growth for many S&P companies, keep in mind that cost cuts, the polite term for layoffs, have been responsible for some of the earnings growth. You’d prefer to see revenue increases as the key driver, which it still is, in many cases.

Also, the S&P has run up 21.81% in the past year. There may be some more room to run, but it’s typical to see a pullback after a rally of 20% to 25%.

Overvaluation may become an issue in the not-so-distant future: According to Yardeni Research, the forward price-to-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 is 20.4. That doesn’t mean a correction will happen tomorrow, but it’s something for investors to keep an eye on, even as earnings growth remains strong.  

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