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Earnings season may not be the club for stocks it could have been had the market not gotten so beaten down.

But it could be a period when the stock market is put to the test, as companies discuss trade, slowing global growth and other issues that have shaken investor confidence.

There have been some high profile warnings, like Apple, Constellation, FedEx and Lennar.

Analysts expect that most of the bad news is out on earnings, but if the results and comments are worse than expected, the market could easily retest its lows. On the other hand, if earnings are better-than-expected, they could act as a positive force to help fend off further declines, strategists said.

Fourth quarter reporting season, with major banks releasing numbers next week, will also serve as an important transition period between 2018’s strong double-digit profit growth and 2019’s much slower single-digit pace.

Earnings are expected to be strong, up 14.7 percent in the fourth quarter, but corporate executives will be discussing the activity in the current quarter, which is expected to see much slower profit growth. First quarter earnings are expected to be up around 3.9 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.

But analysts say while the expectations have come down sharply for 2019, so have stock prices, and that could provide breathing room.

“We could see continued volatility, but I think the bar is set so much lower with valuations so much lower than going into Q3 reporting,” said Keith Parker, chief U.S. equities strategist at UBS. “You’ve had such an unwind in the fourth quarter. Momentum stocks were unduly punished and there’s less of an overhang. You put that all together, and it makes the likelihood of a bust, in our view, much less likely. Our view is we’ll probably have more mixed results and guidance going into the quarter, but it does raise the likelihood of relief rallies, given where positions and expectations are.”

For the fourth quarter, at least 72 S&P 500 companies have issued earnings warnings, twice as many as have issued positive guidance, according to FactSet. Earnings growth rates have also been revised lower by companies in all 11 S&P sectors. As of September, earnings for quarter were expected to be up more than 18 percent but that number has been revised down.

“I think the earnings expectations are low enough that people feel they need to exceed those lowered expectations for Q4,” said Sam Stovall, CFRA chief market strategist. “In each of the last 27 quarters, the S&P 500 had earnings that exceeded estimates. So, with the bar having been set lower, I think that investors are expecting Q4 of 2018 to be the 28th consecutive quarter. I think investors are not going to be very forgiving of companies that miss reduced Q4 earnings estimates.”

Stovall said 2019 earnings had been expected to be up 10 percent, as of September, but that forecast has fallen closer to 6.5 percent.

“Stock prices won’t get pounded as much for a miss now since we’ve already gone through corrections or bear markets, depending on the what sectors or stocks you’re looking at. I think investors will sell off shares of companies if they miss their already reduced expectations,” said Stovall.

Tony Roth, chief investment officer at Wilmington Trust, said the earnings season is being overshadowed by issues that are concerning the market, but it could be a positive. “There’s a lot more upside than downside,” he said. “One thing that’s going to temper earnings is the uncertainty around the impact of the federal government shutdown, assuming that continues, and the outlook for trade and tariffs. I think we’re unlikely we’re going to get a significant miss, but it’s very unlikely we’re going to get the kind of beat and raise environment we usually get. Companies are going to be very cautious about providing that kind of guidance.”

Paul Hickey, co-founder of Bespoke, said positive corporate guidance peaked during the summer, and now fewer companies offer upside guidance than lowered guidance.

Source: Bespoke

Hickey said the market looks set to retest the lows of late December. “It’s about seeing how this is going to play out. We’re relatively cautious,” said Hickey. “I think early on in earnings, over the next week or so, if you start to see positive reactions to companies reporting, you won’t get that typical retest you would expect to see.”

“If they’re bad, we’ll see at least a retest of December lows,” he said.

Roth said health care should be a strong setor this earnings season.

“I think you will see a good number beats because the consumer was so strong in the fourth quarter. It could be more in discretionary but it could also be in communications services, in financials. You saw rates come down so there’s a little bit of momentum in housing,” said Roth.

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Apple TV channels streaming TV service announced

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Apple TV Channels includes Epix, HBO, Showtime, Starz and others. Users will need to subscribe to each channel, but Apple did not say how much it will cost for each service or if it will offer a package that includes all of them at a discount.

“For some of us, the big bundle is more than we need, so we designed a new TV experience where you can pay for only the channels you want all in one app,” Apple’s Peter Stern said during Apple’s press conference. “Watch everything on-demand and ad-free.”

Some of this isn’t new: Apple TV already lets people connect their cable provider into the Apple TV app and, using single sign-on, automatically login to apps that support streaming if you also pay for cable.

A new home screen inside a new Apple TV app will serve as a launchpad for finding TV shows and movies to watch, and it will make recommendations it thinks you’ll like. The Apple TV app is already available on iPad, iPhone and Apple TV, but the company will also bring it to Macs this spring. It will also launch on Vizio, Sony, LG and Samsung smart TVs, as well as Roku and Amazon Fire TV boxes.

Apple TV Channels and the new Apple TV app will launch through a software update in May. It will be available in more than 100 countries.

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Trump’s victory in the Mueller probe could make him take a tougher stand in China talks

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President Donald Trump’s resounding triumph in the Russia collusion investigation is set to reverberate into policy, with the most likely first impact the looming trade negotiations with China.

With the release of a summary of Robert Mueller’s report on his two-year investigation, a previously reeling Trump no longer looks as desperate for a policy win of any sort.

“It sure looked a month ago like he really badly needed a victory. I thought he would take virtually anything on trade,” said Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist at AGF and an expert on the political ramifications on financial markets. “Now that he’s got this victory, it makes him less desperate for a deal. Maybe he can get a little tougher on the Chinese.”

The timing couldn’t be better for Trump.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are off to China this week to continue negotiations over multiple trade-related issues. The two sides have been at loggerheads and involved in a tit-for-tat tariff battle that has been suspended while the negotiations continue.

Financial markets have been nervous over the progress of talks, and Wall Street largely has been hoping the issues could be resolved by the end of the month.

However, the potential that Trump could feel emboldened by the apparent conclusion from the Mueller report that the president’s campaign did not collude with Russia might delay progress with China.

“Although it is too early to tell, the developments are likely to increase the stickiness of the administration’s policies for the foreseeable future,” Ed Mills, public policy analyst at Raymond James, said in a note. “This may serve to lengthen the runway for the completion of a deal with greater concessions from China.”

The Mueller report and the China negotiations were thought to represent two of the key unknowns for corporate executives and investors. After 2018 saw the best economic growth of the expansion that began in mid-2009, 2019 started off with a high level of uncertainty, particularly over the effects that slowdowns in Europe and China will have on the U.S.

With an election year right around the corner, Trump also will need to shore up his base, much of which exists in the heartland and among the farmers who have taken a substantial hit from the China tensions. China also has suffered by losing a key market for its exports.

“Both sides have incentives to reach an agreement,” wrote Tom Block, head of research at Fundstrat Global Advisors. “China’s economy has been slipping and an end to mounting US tariffs would be a significant boost. For the US, all roads for a Trump 2020 victory lead through a solid red farm belt.”

Those looking for a resolution, however, may have to be patient.

“For people who were hoping for a quick trade deal, prospects have slipped that we’ll get anything done quickly,” Valliere said. “This could drag on a little bit more than the market had anticipated.”

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Trump moves toward China trade deal and USMCA after Mueller report

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The high-stakes trade decisions in Washington do not end there. Trump has also accused Europe of unfair trade practices, and sees tariffs on European cars as one means to address them.

The move would come with its own political risks. Trump’s tariff policy has sparked more backlash from Republicans on Capitol Hill than just about anything the president has done since he took office.

GOP lawmakers have in particular questioned the national security justification the Trump administration used to put duties on steel and aluminum imports last year. A group of lawmakers from both major parties led by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last week asking him to publish the auto tariff report and answer questions about how he came to his conclusions.

Some GOP senators have already signaled they will oppose auto tariffs if Trump levies them.

“Section 232 is a vital trade remedy tool for genuine national security threats, but misusing it on autos is harmful for Ohio, its economy & auto manufacturing in our state,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a written statement. “I urge the administration to make public its recent report justifying its rationale in this case.”

Last week, Trump told Fox Business Network that he wants European automakers to build their cars in the U.S. Still, he may not exactly agree with the rationale his administration would use to levy the duties on automobiles.

Asked if he thought car imports threatened national security, the president answered, “Well, no.” He said “what poses a national security risk is our balance sheet,” in reference to trade deficits with the European Union.

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