DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
Expected growth in first-quarter earnings for companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose to 57% from 56% a week ago–the fourth consecutive weekly increase, according to Thomson Reuters.

First-quarter reports are largely in now, and next week just three Dow Jones Industrial Average components and 23 members of the S&P 500 are scheduled to post results.

Through Friday, 459 companies in the S&P 500 had reported, with 77% posting results above analysts’ expectations, 7% in line with estimates and 15% below, said Thomson Reuters. In a typical quarter, 61% of companies beat, 18% match and 21% miss.

Thus far, companies are reporting results that are an average 15% above estimates, compared with the 2% historical average. That is the highest surprise factor in the survey’s 16-year history; it also was recorded in the third quarter of 2009.

Revenue had been a concern since profit growth of late hasn’t been due to sales gains. However, revenue has generally topped estimates. Thomson Reuters said 67% of the reporting companies have topped views.

Financial companies have topped earnings estimates by the highest percentage and highest dollar level of any sector, with Citigroup Inc. (C) and Bank of America Corp. (BAC) responsible for most of the dollar-level surprise.

Poor results in the financial sector a year ago are credited for about a third of the expected growth in the first quarter. The industry at the time was in the throes of the financial crisis, which began in earnest months earlier. Excluding financials, first-quarter earnings growth is projected to be 39% and the earnings surprise is 10%.

The S&P 500 recorded earnings growth in the fourth quarter for the first time after a record nine straight quarters of year-over-year declines.

So far, 43 companies in the index have predicted second-quarter results below Wall Street expectations, while 43 have projected above analysts’ estimates. That 1-1 ratio is below the historical average of 2.1-1.

-By Kathy Shwiff, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2357; kathy.shwiff@dowjones.com

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