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Aluminum producer Alcoa’s (NYSE: AA) earnings report is generally considered the start of each quarterly earnings cycle. And by that measure, the fourth quarter earnings season will get underway with Alcoa’s report after the close on Tuesday. In total, we will get earnings reports from 34 companies this week, including 5 S&P 500 members, with the reporting pace accelerating in the following week.Alcoa’s unofficial first-to-report status notwithstanding, the fourth quarter reporting has been officially underway for a couple of weeks now as all companies with financial quarters ending in November and reporting results in December get counted as part of our fourth quarter results tally. As such, we already have fourth quarter results from 22 S&P 500 companies, including operators like Oracle , FedEx and Nike .

Total earnings for these 22 companies are up +1.4% from the same period last year, with total revenues up +3.5%. This is better performance than what this same cohort of 22 companies did in the third quarter when total earnings were down -2.4% from the year-earlier period.At this stage, the important story on the earnings front is what’s expected for the more than 95% that have still to report results. And those expectations have been steadily coming down over the last three months and are barely in positive territory now. Total earnings in the fourth quarter are expected to be up +0.4% from the same period last year. This is a sharp drop from the roughly +7% earnings growth rate that consensus expected just three months ago.The downward adjustment to expectations notwithstanding, fourth quarter earnings growth is still better than what was expected in the third quarter just before the start of that reporting cycle. At this stage in the third quarter, total earnings were expected to be down more than -3% from the same period last year.

Actual results, however, came out a little better with total third quarter earnings essentially flat. Excluding Finance, total earnings in the third quarter were down -4.1%, while total ex-Finance revenues are expected to be down -1.3% in the fourth quarter.Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) will kick off the big bank earnings season with its release before the market’s open on Friday. Wells Fargo has been a relatively steady performer in the big-bank space lately, with positive earnings surprises in each of the last four quarters. The Finance sector as a whole is expected to have earnings growth of 9.8% in the fourth quarter, which will be a deceleration from the sector’s strong growth pace in the last few quarters (Finance sector earnings were up +23.3% in the third quarter).

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