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For corporate profits, is this as good as it gets?

1. Peak earnings: Corporate America's profits are growing at warp speed.A perfect storm of hu...

Posted: May 7, 2018 4:08 AM
Updated: May 7, 2018 4:08 AM

1. Peak earnings: Corporate America's profits are growing at warp speed.

A perfect storm of huge corporate tax cuts, solid economic momentum and rising oil prices is expected to lift S&P 500 earnings by nearly 20% this year.

Companies haven't minted money that fast since 2010, the first full year after the Great Recession, according to FactSet.

Stocks raced to new heights in January as investors anticipated dizzying growth this year. But Wall Street is increasingly worried that growth is unsustainable. Earnings, the main driver of stock prices, may keep going up, but it will probably be at a slower pace.

"The growth rate for earnings this year is as good as it gets, especially this late in an economic expansion," Ed Yardeni, president of the investment advisory firm Yardeni Research, wrote to clients.

Wall Street analysts anticipate a sharp deceleration in profit growth - to about 10% - next year. And that's assuming the economic recovery, already the second-longest in history, keeps chugging along.

Jitters about an earnings growth slowdown led to a rude awakening in the markets after many companies reported impressive results. The stocks of IBM and Caterpillar and Alphabet, the owner of Google, all dropped after the companies beat Wall Street profit expectations.

Caterpillar's stock began falling after Chief Financial Officer Brad Halverson said that first-quarter profits would be the "high-water mark for the year."

On average, S&P 500 companies that beat both revenue and profit expectations have traded just 0.1% higher on the day they post results, according to CFRA Research. "Even companies that announced perfect quarters" often fell on the day, CFRA's Lindsey Bell wrote.

The blockbuster earnings season has thus far failed to move the needle for the overall stock market. The S&P 500 is flat the past two weeks and just about unchanged on the year. The Dow is down nearly 2% in 2018.

Related: Rising costs start to squeeze American businesses

The good news is that more muted profit growth doesn't need to doom the nine-year bull market in stocks.

Although an "earnings growth slowdown is coming next year," Morgan Stanley equity strategist Michael Wilson argues it's already been "priced in." That's because once-lofty stock market valuations have come back to earth. In other words, investors are no longer pricing in perfection.

The catch is that the economy must keep growing.

Bill Dudley, the outgoing president of the New York Federal Reserve, said on Friday that he'd be "surprised" if the recovery from the Great Recession ended in the next year or two.

Yet Dudley warned there are "some clouds on the horizon," including the risk of a trade war.

"If we go down the bad path," Dudley said of trade, "that would obviously create quite a bit of risk."

Of course, an actual trade war would make concerns of peak earnings growth look quaint.

2. Inflation watch: The Labor Department is scheduled to release the Consumer Price Index and the Producer Price Index for April this week. Those indexes keep track of how much consumers pay for goods and how much producers sell them for.

When the CPI jumped unexpectedly in January, it raised fears that the Federal Reserve would accelerate interest-rate hikes to keep inflation down. But the measures have flattened since then, and the April jobs report revealed a modest 2.6% increase in wages, which should calm inflation fears.

Still, some analysts are expecting wages to tick up in coming months. And inflation is nearing the Fed's 2% target. So Wall Street is sure to keep a watchful eye on the price indexes.

Related: US economy grew modestly to start 2018

3. Job turnover: The government plans to release its report on March job openings on Tuesday, days after another strong jobs report.

The unemployment rate dropped to 3.9% in April, the first time it's been below 4% since 2000. The number of people quitting is also historically high, as people switch to better jobs.

The good news came with a caveat: The unemployment rate fell in part because the labor force shrank. Tuesday's report will offer more details on the types of changes people were making in March.

Related: Unemployment is below 4% for the first time since 2000

4. Disney's super earnings: Disney will have a chance to boast about "Black Panther" when it reports second-quarter results on Tuesday.

The hugely popular superhero movie has made more than $688 million domestically. That puts it ahead of "Titanic" on the all-time list of highest-grossing films. Disney's "Avengers: Infinity War" and the upcoming "Star Wars" movie "Solo" are also expected to be huge hits.

Investors will also be listening for updates on Disney's plan to buy most of 21st Century Fox, which is scheduled to report on Wednesday.

Related: Disney's battle plan: 'Avengers: Infinity War' spills off the screen

5. Apple soars: So much for investor fears about weak iPhone sales. Apple just had its best week in years.

The company soared 13%, its best since October 2011. Shareholders cheered the news that Apple will spend $100 billion more on stock buybacks. It bought back $22.8 billion of its own stock in the first three months of this year, a record.

And Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought about 75 million Apple shares in the first three months of the year. "It's an amazing business," Buffett told CNBC.

Related: Dow climbs 332 points as Apple and jobs report lift stocks

6. Coming this week:

Monday - AMC earnings

Tuesday - Disney, Sturm Ruger earnings; JOLTS

Wednesday - 21st Century Fox earnings; PPI

Thursday - CPI

Friday - University of Michigan's Consumer Sentiment survey

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