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Alcoa (AA - Analyst Report) ‘unofficially’ kicks off the fourth quarter earnings season after the close today, and it promises to be a less-than-inspiring reporting cycle. Total earnings for companies in the S&P 500 are expected to be flat this quarter from the same period last year, roughly similar to the flat growth finish in the third quarter.

But with macro issues -- ranging from the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ and the Fed to the outlook for Europe and China -- occupying investors’ attention, it isn’t clear at this stage if the deteriorating earnings picture will finally get the spotlight that it deserves.

Expectations have come down significantly enough for the fourth quarter that actual results are unlikely to be worse than what we experienced in the third quarter. Even the flat earnings growth expected this quarter is better than the negative earnings growth that was expected for the third quarter at the start of that earnings season.

In the end, third quarter earnings were a lot less negative (down only -0.1%), but that was a sharp contrast to the positive earnings growth performance quarter after quarter since 2009. Importantly, as the third quarter reporting season was getting underway, consensus estimates for the fourth quarter looked for earnings growth in excess of +7%.

The drumbeat of negative guidance on the third quarter earnings calls brought down that growth expectation from +7% to the current +0.4%. As is typically the case each quarter, most companies will likely come ahead of these lowered expectations.

Guidance from management teams on the earnings conference calls is always very important, but it will be even more critical this earnings season. In the current post-Reg FD environment, company guidance has become the primary tool through which managements anchor the market’s expectations. And earnings expectations for the coming quarters appear unusually optimistic relative to what we have seen lately.

Consensus estimates peg earnings growth to ramp up from the flat-lined performance of the second half of 2012 to a roughly +10% gain in 2013. Whether those expectations will hold or come down will depend to a large extent on how management teams describe business conditions on the fourth quarter earnings calls in the coming days.

We will know more in the coming days as the earnings picture evolves. But all indications are that estimates need to come down given the unsteady and weak state of the global economy. Revenue growth and margin expansion are the primary avenues through which earnings could grow. And both of those avenues have already played out. The market hasn’t been particularly concerned about this issue thus far, but it is difficult to envision investors shrugging lack of earnings growth for long.

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