Wall Street analysts have slashed expectations for US earnings in the first quarter as companies grapple with plummeting oil prices and slow economic growth.  The growing pessimism comes amid a brutal start to the year for the stock market during which the S&P 500 has been marked by volatility as the outlook for global economic growth darkens, led by uncertainty over the slowdown in China.  At the outset of the year, analysts had forecast a return to growth of 0.6 per cent in US first-quarter earnings per share on a year-on-year basis, according to FactSet. They have since marked estimates down to a decline of 7.4 percent.  “It does appear that companies are having difficulty gaining traction in this low-growth environment and that is putting downward pressure on earnings,” said Alan Gayle, director of asset allocation at RidgeWorth Investments.  The potential quarter of shrinking profits follows the worst earnings season since the aftermath of the financial crisis during which earnings have fallen for three consecutive quarters and revenues have fallen for four.