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A lot of money is riding on this earnings season…literally. As stock prices continue to rise into uncharted territory, investors are going to be less forgiving this earnings season after walking off the rough start to the year. On Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) closed above 17,000 for the first time and the S&P 500 Index (SPX) set a new closing high just north of 1,985 to end the Fourth of July-foreshortened week following strong job numbers.

This week, investors will be girding for second-quarter earnings season as Alcoa Inc.(AA) reports on Tuesday and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) releases results on Friday. Earnings reports ramp up considerably the following week with a slew of bank earnings from such Dow components as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), along with other heavy-hitters like Intel Corp. (INTC) and Google Inc. (GOOG)

“People are going to expect slightly better results this quarter,” said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab. “If there’s solid data that earnings are good, then the market can justify going higher.”

Second-quarter earnings for the S&P 500 are currently expected to grow by 4.9%, according to John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet. While that’s down from the expected growth of 6.8% when the second quarter began, Butters said in a recent note that analysts have cut their earnings estimates by the lowest amount since the second quarter of 2011, suggesting higher expectations and a reluctance to lower the bar.

Earnings performance in the land of new record highs

Since the S&P 500 cleared its October 2007 record high back in late March of 2013, expected earnings growth at the end of the quarter has averaged 1.6%. Over the same period, actual growth has averaged 3.8%, a difference of 2.2 percentage points, by the end of the four peak weeks of earnings.

Coincidentally, the S&P 500 has gained an average of 2.2% over the course of those four peak weeks of earnings. If we stick to the averages, it possible anything less than 7.1% earnings growth on the S&P 500 after most companies have reported will be viewed as substandard, putting considerable pressure on the market.

With heightened expectations relative to previous quarters, even a better-than-average earnings season might not light a fire under stocks. Stocks are anything but cheap and most people think they’re fairly valued, so it’ll take something on top the usual two-thirds of companies beating Wall Street expectations to drive stocks higher.

Expectations are at the point where companies that issue negative outlooks are getting beaten up more than usual and companies offering positive outlooks aren’t getting rewarded as much as they have in the past. There’s also the added pressure of companies validating figures indicating economic growth is back on track. On Friday, the unemployment rate fell to 6.1%, the lowest since September 2008, as the economy posted its fifth straight monthly gain of more than 200,000 jobs.

“We’ve got to have continued growth,” Schwab’s Frederick said. “There’s some room for valuation increases but not by a huge amount.”

But it’s not just earnings that are under the microscope. As with past quarters, earnings growth without appreciable revenue growth is not going to cut it with investors, he said. That could prove to be problematic as revenue isn’t projected to improve all that dramatically. Analysts are looking at 2.7% revenue growth in the second quarter, Butters notes.

How overvalued are stocks really?

Whether stocks are overvalued relative to earnings really depends on what you define an “average” valuation, FactSet’s Butters said.

The current forward price-to-earnings ratio is around 15.7, he notes. If you look at the five-year average (13.3) and the 10-year average (13.8), then stocks have been overvalued for about a year.

But if you look at the 15-year average (15.8), which of course takes into account the frothy days of the bubble, then prices could have a little farther to go. Then again, that really underscores the argument that lowered expectations may be a thing of the past and that earnings are really going to have to step up to the plate to keep pace with prices.

“It is interesting to note that the forward 12-month P/E ratio would be even higher if analysts were not projecting record-level EPS for the next four quarters,” Butters said.

By Wallace Witkowski, MarketWatch