Sunday, January 18, 2009

Stocks: Here come the earnings

Investors not fixated on the inauguration will be bemoaning corporate health as the first big wave of quarterly results are unleashed upon the markets. And it could get ugly.

"Analysts still haven't ratcheted down their earnings expectations enough, so we'll probably see a lot more negative surprises than positive ones," said Timothy Ghriskey, chief investment officer at Solaris Asset Management. "But offsetting this will be optimism about the new administration."

Some 180 companies are slated to report results this week. Currently, 55 S&P 500 firms, including five Dow components are on tap. Standouts include Johnson & Johnson (JNJ, Fortune 500), IBM (IBM, Fortune 500), United Technologies (UTX, Fortune 500), Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500), eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500), Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), and General Electric (GE, Fortune 500).

A few housing reports are also scheduled, but the week is otherwise light on economic news. Financial markets are closed on Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Tuesday's big event is of course Inauguration Day, when Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president. It appears likely that Obama will waste little time making his mark on the economy: Expectations are growing that he will soon announce plans for the second $350 billion set aside to bail out the financial system.

Stocks should get a boost from enthusiasm about the inauguration, but any big earnings disappointments could dampen that, said Ghriskey.

Stocks have had a rough go in the new year. A two-session advance at the end of last week took the edge off a decline that saw the Dow falling back to within range of the bear market lows it hit last November.

The financial sector has been especially battered, with the KBW Bank (BKX) sector index losing 28% year-to-date versus the S&P 500's loss of nearly 6%.

Bracing for weak earnings: Fourth-quarter earnings are expected to have slumped 20.2% from a year ago, according to earnings tracker Thomson Reuters. That would make it the sixth consecutive quarter of shrinking growth for the S&P 500 index.

"What's different this time is that the weakness is spreading," said John Butters, Thomson Reuters' senior research analyst.

He said that in previous quarters, most of the weakness was coming from the financial sector and the consumer discretionary sector, which includes automakers and homebuilders. During those quarters, select sectors were actually posting small gains, while others were close to unchanged.

The financial sector is still expected to be the worst performer in the fourth quarter, with analysts forecasting a decline of 98% from a year ago. But this time, the financials are far from an anomaly, Butters said.

Seven of the 10 economic sectors are expected to post declines, Butters said, as companies across a broad range of industries suffer amid the more than one-year old recession. Healthcare, utilities and consumer staples are the only ones expected to see any growth, and all in the low single digits.

Tuesday: Dow component Johnson & Johnson is expected to report earnings of 92 cents per share Tuesday morning, versus a profit of 88 cents per share a year ago, according to analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters.

After the market close, Dow component IBM is expected to report earnings of $3.03 per share, versus $2.80 per share a year ago.

Wednesday: United Technologies, another Dow component, is expected to have earned $1.22 per share, up from $1.08 a share a year ago.

Apple reports quarterly earnings after the market close. The tech leader is expected to have earned $1.38 a share versus a profit of $1.76 per share a year ago.

Also reporting after the close is eBay. The online auctioneer is expected to have earned 40 cents a share versus 45 cents a share a year ago.

Thursday: Google is expected to report a profit of $4.96 per share Thursday evening, up from $4.43 a share a year ago.

Microsoft also reports results after the bell. The software giant is expected to have earned 50 cents per share, unchanged from the same period last year.

Friday: General Electric, a Dow component, reports quarterly results Friday morning. GE is expected to have earned 37 cents per share versus 68 cents a share a year ago.

Wednesday: Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner's confirmation hearing in the Senate is due to begin around 10 a.m. ET.

Geithner was considered a shoo-in but has faced questions lately about his initial failure to pay certain taxes earlier this decade, as well as the immigration status of a housekeeper.

Thursday: December housing starts are expected to have fallen to a 610,000 unit annual rate from a 625,000 unit rate in November, according to forecasts. Building permits, a measure of builder confidence, are expected to have fallen to a 615,000 unit annual rate from a 616,000 unit rate in November.

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