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Tickers in this Article: MSFT, HPQ, MSFT, BHI, HAL, UNP, CSX, NSC
With roughly 40% of the S&P 500's companies having reported last quarter's numbers, we can get a pretty good feel for how the chips are going to fall for the remaining 60%. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most bullish sector and industry clues that have been served up so far.

IN PICTURES: 8 Signs Of A Doomed Stock

Lots of Beats, Not Many Misses
If topping earnings estimates is the key, then no other sector has fared as well as the technology sector has. Of the 37 large cap tech names that have posted earnings so far, 31 exceeded estimates while four of them fell short (the other two met expectations). That's the best beat/miss ratio among all groups. Within the tech sector, hardware and equipment names have thus far done most of the work; year-over-year (YOY) income is up an average of 49.8% here, thanks to names like Hewlett-Packard Co, (NYSE:HPQ). Though its most recent quarter ended, the per-share earnings level of $1.33 still topped the Q4 income of $1.14 per share from a year earlier, which bodes well for the yet-to-be-reported companies.

The software and services group was also a shining tech star though. Prior to Microsoft's (Nasdaq:MSFT) good news on Thursday, 11 of the 13 companies that had posted numbers managed to beat expectations. Microsoft made it 12 out of 14, bringing home 77 cents per share against expectations of 68 cents, and bettering the prior Q4's EPS of 77 cents.

Though the average improvement from the group has only been about 18%, none yet have failed to at least meet expectations.

Biggest Reliable Income Increases
Technically speaking, it was the basic materials names that boast the best increase in income for the fourth quarter so far, with the average bottom line being up 36.0%. There's just something about the energy sector's 35.7% increase, however, that feels a little more sustainable. Traders can thank Baker Hughes Inc. (NYSE:BHI) and Halliburton Co. (NYSE:HAL) for the bulk of the boost to date. Baker-Hughes pumped up its per-share income from 43 cents a year ago to 84 cents this year, while Halliburton cranked it up from 28 cents a year ago to 68 cents in the forth quarter of 2010.

Q4's Cinderella Earnings Story
Though it's neither the group with the biggest improvement nor the best beat/miss ratio, the transportation stock deserves a special mention. Why? Mostly because nobody was really talking about them going into earnings season, good or bad. Perhaps investors should have been talking, however.

Though two of the five that have posted beat expectations, and two other of the five missed, net income is still up an average of 29.6%.

Rail carriers have carried the bulk of the weight so far. Union Pacific (NYSE:UNP) brought home $1.56 per share last quarters against $1.08 per share a year ago - a 44% improvement, and a pretty easy beat of the expected $1.48. Norfolk Southern Corp. (NYSE:NSC) and CSX Corp. (NYSE:CSX) aced last quarter too though. In fact, CSX and Union Pacific each reached record earnings levels in the fourth quarter of 2010.

The Bottom Line
Though exceptions still slip through, by and large what drove the strength for these early successes is apt to have done the same for the competition. Now that the cat's out of the bag for some names, we've at least got a decent idea of what to expect for the others. (Breeze through consensus estimates like the biggest Wall Street forecasters. Check out Strategies For Quarterly Earnings Season.)

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