NEW YORK – Even with the economic disruption caused by hurricanes Rita and Katrina, analysts expect U.S. companies to report quite satisfactory double-digit profit growth when they start releasing third-quarter earnings in the coming week. It’s the fourth quarter that could cause consternation, as the impact of soaring energy prices and other aftereffects of the hurricanes are likely to be reflected in companies’ profit forecasts. And that will probably lead investors to focus on “What will you do for me?” instead of “What have you done for me lately?” as they peruse third-quarter results. Standard & Poor’s analysts say companies within the S&P 500 index are expected to report aggregate profit gains of 14 percent for the third quarter – a record 14th consecutive quarter of double-digit gains. “We’re setting record on top of record here,” said Howard Silverblatt, equity market analyst at S&P. “We’re nowhere near the 20 percent growth we may have seen a few quarters ago, but earnings will certainly be decent.” In addition, companies have made it easier on themselves to increase earnings per share simply by taking shares out of circulation. Stock-buyback programs – in which companies repurchase previously issued shares – are popular with investors because it increases demand for a company’s stock by reducing supply. However, they also have the added effect of making earnings per share look better than they might otherwise because that figure is based on a shrinking pool of outstanding shares. “If you reduce the number of outstanding shares by a percent or two, that increases your EPS, and makes you look better,” Silverblatt said. “That’s helped make up for the impact of the storms so far, though that will change.” Most analysts believe that the full impact of the storms, and the resulting higher energy prices, has yet to be felt in the economy, up to 70 percent of which is fueled by consumer spending. Consumers face still-high gasoline prices, record-high heating costs this winter and minimum credit card payments about to double from 2 percent to 4 percent. Retailers, in particular, could see profits sink as consumers find they have less to spend over the holidays. As a result, S&P believes that the 14-quarter stretch of double- digit gains will likely end with fourth-quarter earnings, expected to rise just 9 percent. That’s a good performance, but just not the great one the stock market is looking for. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREThe top 10 theme park moments of 2019 Wall Street, however, may not even care, and investors could very well see the stocks of companies with stellar third-quarter earnings drop sharply after their profit announcements. With the hurricanes’ economic impact still rippling through the economy, and energy prices showing little give heading into winter, what Wall Street really wants to hear is companies’ fourth-quarter and 2006 forecasts. To some extent, that forward-looking bent is nothing new for the stock market; investors are always buying according to what they think the future will be. But investors believe that the hurricanes have made third-quarter results somewhat irrelevant in terms of predicting what’s to come – not unlike the situation that faced the market after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. “The volatility in the weeks ahead are going to come from companies talking about the fourth quarter, talking about next year and how they plan to manage their businesses through some of these problems,” said Stuart Freeman, chief equity strategist for A.G. Edwards & Sons. “By then, we’ll have a full quarter of businesses dealing with energy prices. This quarter, though, still looks good.” This may come as a surprise to investors who closely watch the news coming out of corporate America. There have been a series of warnings from a variety of companies that have reduced their sales and profit outlooks due to soft demand, higher energy prices or disruptions from the hurricanes. It’s worth noting, however, that the number of companies that have issued reduced outlooks represent only a small percentage of publicly traded firms, and have tended to be smaller companies rather than industrial giants such as General Electric Co., which reaffirmed its earnings forecasts this past week.