Corporate America is putting the finishing touches this week on another fine earnings season, yet hardly anyone seems to have noticed &...

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DALLAS — Corporate America is putting the finishing touches this week on another fine earnings season, yet hardly anyone seems to have noticed — certainly not stock investors.

For companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, fourth-quarter profit growth will top 20 percent over the year-earlier quarter, according to Thomson Financial. That’s more than double the historic average and 5 percentage points better than the Wall Street seers predicted when the quarter began.

Positive-earnings surprises typically move the market, but this time the Dow Jones industrial average and the broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index seem to have turned a cold shoulder. The Dow is basically flat for the year so far, and the S&P 500 is off about 1 percent. The Nasdaq composite index has a 5.4 percent loss year to date.

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Analysts point to two big reasons for the lack of interest: One, the understanding that earnings growth must inevitably slow soon; and two, the belief that the nearly 2-1/2-year-old bull market may be running its course.

“We have been meandering around for quite some time,” said Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab & Co. “The stock market was range-bound for most of last year, and that seems to be the situation again this year.”

Stocks stumbled in January mainly because of concerns over higher oil prices and interest rates — the Federal Reserve has raised short-term interest rates six times since June. Also, some investors decided to take their profits after a strong late-year rally in 2004.

As a result, the Dow and the S&P 500 both dropped about 4 percent; the Nasdaq composite index shed 8 percent.

The market recovered most of those losses in early February but slipped a little last week.

While fourth-quarter earnings growth was surprisingly strong, analysts say it can’t continue. Earnings growth for all of 2004 was about 20 percent. But the current estimate for the first quarter of this year is 6.8 percent, and 9.7 percent for the full year.

That appears to be a dramatic drop-off, but it’s hard to feel too much disappointment.

This year’s first-quarter earnings are matched against the near 28 percent growth rate in the first quarter of 2004.

“It would be impossible to keep up that pace,” said David Dropsey, research analyst at Thomson.

Besides, Sonders said it’s encouraging to see investors acting rationally instead of just plunging into the stock market.

“I get worried when investors are euphoric like they were in 1999,” she said.

Many investors also are beginning to worry that the bull market is getting a little long in the tooth. Larry Wachtel, market analyst at Wachovia Securities, said the average bull market lasts about 2-1/2 to three years.

“This is an aging bull market,” Wachtel said. “It now stands at 28 months, and that is a long time for a market to move without a 20 percent decline. That is why investors aren’t jumping in; that’s the hurdle.”

He and other stock experts aren’t necessarily predicting the end of the bull market this year, but fear of its demise is a factor weighing on the collective investor psyche.

“In the last two months, we have gone nowhere,” Wachtel said. “We are right about where we started, and I just don’t see any big catalyst to drive the market a lot higher.”

The Dow will get another chance today to respond to a significant earnings report.

That’s when the last of the big blue chips reports. The giant home-improvement retailer Home Depot is expected to report earnings per share of 47 cents, compared with 42 cents for the same period last year.

So far, 20 of the 30 companies in the Dow have surpassed earnings estimates, and four have hit their targets, according to Thomson.

Besides these remaining earnings reports, a small number of economic reports are also on the calendar this week. The January consumer-price index will be released tomorrow. The jump in the January producer-price index last week has put added emphasis on the CPI, Dropsey said.

“If further sharp increases are seen in the coming months, the Federal Reserve may opt for a more aggressive approach” in raising interest rates, Dropsey said.