NEW YORK – Stocks are poised to slip this week with the flood of earnings expected to yield little good news, while uncertainty over the war in Afghanistan and fear of more attacks on the United States will keep investors on edge.
Major stock market gauges fell last week, and analysts say that trend will continue over the next two weeks as investors get more confirmation of what is expected to be the worst quarter for corporate profits in a decade.
Earnings could take a back seat, however, to geopolitical events as the United States embarks on a ground assault in Afghanistan and Americans brace for the possibility of more assaults on U.S. soil after the attacks on New York and Washington last month that killed more than 5,000 people.
"There's more uncertainty as you have guys on the ground, less support from earnings than what we're experiencing now, and maybe the reality of the weakness in the fourth quarter starting to weigh a little more on the market," said Jon Brorson, director of equities at Northern Trust.
A fresh batch of blue-chip firms are scheduled to issue quarterly scorecards this week, including financial services giant American Express Co., while Compaq Computer tops the list of high-tech firms reporting.
Wall Street also will be looking out for the latest economic reports, including the Federal Reserve's Beige Book, its anecdotal take on the U.S. economy, as well as durable goods data and weekly jobless claims figures.
Anthrax Scare Rattles Wall Street
Stocks gave up ground in the past week, eroding the sharp rebound Wall Street made in recent weeks after taking a nosedive the week after the Sept. 11 attacks. For the week, the broad Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 1.7 percent for the week, while the tech-packed Nasdaq Composite fell 1.9 percent, and the Dow Jones industrial average slipped 1.5 percent.
Quarterly results from blue-chip heavyweights like computer maker International Business Machines Corp. and Intel Corp. came in; while far from rosy, these results matched analysts' expectations and helped underpin the market.
Americans are on edge after a slew of anthrax scares around the world last week, fanning fears of a bioterrorist attack, as the number of people exposed to the potentially deadly bacteria climbed in the United States.
Employees at the New York Post, NBC News, CBS News, and the child of an ABC News staffer tested positive for skin anthrax. Spores found in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, prompted the shutdown of the Capitol Hill office complex.
A small number of elite commando troops entered Afghanistan on Friday to make contact with factions opposed to the ruling Taliban, which has vowed to protect Usama bin Laden, the man blamed for masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.
"As long as we don't have any major negative news and incremental positive news — i.e., the war is being won — I think investors will greet that with positive market action," said Erik Gustafson, portfolio manager at Stein Roe & Farnham.
"But we know it's not all going to be positive, and when there is a negative event, the market will sell, and it will sell hard," he added.
Analysts pointed to increasing tensions in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians as one potential flashpoint that investors will keep in mind.
Earnings Flood Continues
All that comes amid one of the busiest weeks of the earnings reporting period, with roughly 160 companies in the S&P 500 slated to release their results this week, according to earnings tracking firm Thomson Financial/First Call. Nearly half of all of the reports from those 500 companies are now in.
Third-quarter earnings are expected to fall 22.4 percent, their biggest quarterly drop since the second quarter of 1991, Thomson Financial said.
"I don't think we're going to get anything that's real encouraging," Jeff Kleintop, chief investment strategist at PNC Advisors said, although he added that most companies' forecasts had already been discounted by Wall Street.
Aside from American Express, other blue-chip firms scheduled to issue results are Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co., Eastman Kodak and DuPont Co.
In the technology and telecommunications sectors, Compaq Computer, JDS Uniphase Corp. and Lucent Technologies are set to release quarterly figures.
Wall Street has a modest amount of economic data to rake through, including the federal budget figures for September, the Employment Cost Index for the third quarter, durable goods data and a report on weekly jobless claims.
The Fed's Beige Book, set for release on Wednesday at 2 p.m. EDT, will give investors an anecdotal look at the U.S. economy, which many fear has tumbled into recession.
Data on the labor market will be key as layoff announcements continue to stream in, heightening concerns that rising joblessness could cause Americans to stop spending, hindering the economic rebound many are hoping will arrive early next year.
For the week ended Oct. 20, the number of people lining up for first-time jobless claims rose to 497,000 from 490,000 in the previous week, according to a Reuters poll of economists.
"The data is going to reflect continued weakness and a relatively conservative outlook going forward," Kleintop said.
It will be at least several more months before the market starts showing signs that the massive amounts of monetary and fiscal stimulus take effect, he said.
The Federal Reserve has slashed interest rates nine times so far this year — twice since Sept. 11 — and a package aimed at injecting $100 billion in stimulus into the economy over the next year is making its way through Congress.
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan is scheduled to make several speeches in the coming week, and investors will be listening keenly for any clues to what the Fed will do at its next policy-setting meeting on Nov. 6.
"Without a lot of catalysts going forward, I think the market is probably going to be choppy and trend to the downside," Kleintop said.