Earnings season is about to start in earnest, and for the Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI), the financial sector is the first to report. When bank stocks and other financial companies start issuing their results for the first quarter, investors want to see whether financials can exceed the low expectations they have or whether earnings declines will really be as bad as some fear -- especially for Dow stalwarts JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Travelers (NYSE:TRV), and Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS).

Headwinds on the banks
JPMorgan Chase will be the first Dow stock to report March-quarter results next week, and investors don't have very high hopes for the banking giant. Estimates have JPMorgan Chase posting an 11% drop in earnings per share from year-ago levels, and that comes even after share repurchases that should have boosted EPS figures compared to early 2013. A 5% revenue plunge will reflect key challenges like falling levels of mortgage borrowing activity as rates stopped dropping last year and have run up fairly substantially from year-ago levels.

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Yet JPMorgan is aiming to focus on its core business. Earlier this week, the bank sold its 401(k) recordkeeping business to Canada's Great-West Lifeco, essentially giving up on JPMorgan Chase's effort to capture a greater share of the retirement-plan business. Yet even after having identified retirement accounts as a demographically attractive growth industry, JPMorgan Chase's efforts to keep building up the administrative side of the business proved not to be as fruitful as the bank had hoped.

Goldman Sachs could see an even steeper drop in earnings, with analysts expecting an 18% earnings pullback on 13% lower revenue. The investment bank has already done just about everything it can do to control costs, with its fourth-quarter results including the second-lowest compensation costs since its IPO. The obstacle for Goldman is that it hasn't been able to come close to the 20% returns on equity that it routinely posted during better times, and with new regulation, it seems unlikely that Goldman Sachs will ever get back to those levels barring an unforeseen loosening of oversight.

The easiest earnings drop to understand comes from Travelers, which is seen falling 6% despite a 6% rise in revenue. Travelers benefited last year from exceedingly favorable loss experience, but that has made this year's comps incredibly difficult, and investors expect the insurance giant's full-year earnings to drop by about 12%. It will be interesting to see whether cold winter weather brings an increase in claims, but the real test will come during the year's hurricane season, where Travelers and its peers often face the greatest volatility in results.

What's next?
The wild card for financials is that market participants are still trying to figure out whether the Federal Reserve will start raising short-term interest rates sooner than many had originally expected. Fed Chair Janet Yellen initially suggested in her press conference following the last meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee that rate hikes could come as soon as mid-2015. But since then, sluggish employment data and some other mediocre results on the economic front have given the Fed room to slow down and project a longer time horizon before rates start moving back to more normal levels.

As earnings season for the Dow Jones Industrials begins, watch financials very closely. Between Goldman Sachs, Travelers, and JPMorgan Chase, financial stocks will provide a good initial read on how the first quarter of 2014 went for corporate America more broadly.