Even Fed Cut Can't Support Market
NEW YORK – It's not enough.
Sure, stocks jumped last week when the U.S. Federal Reserve surprised the market with an interest-rate cut, but investors need signs of a pick-up in corporate profits. Next week's earnings reports aren't going to give it to them, and stocks are likely to fall or be little changed.
``Companies have been pulling their guidance for the year and there's just no visibility out there,'' said James Fargis, who helps manage $450 million, for FleetBoston Financial. ``The Fed can cut rates all it wants, I just don't see any reason for us to go higher.''
Economists and strategists say it takes at least a half year for companies and consumers to start to feel the warm glow from a rate cut. That's an eternity for investors who often dump shares of companies that can't given an indication of when profits will pick up.
Take the action in Nortel Networks Corp. stock after the world's largest supplier of telecommunications equipment refused to offer financial guidance for the next quarter or full year when it reported first-quarter results on Thursday.
Shares dropped 5 percent on Friday as analysts cut estimates, citing ongoing questions about when the company will recover from the economic slump.
That doesn't bode well for the markets as earnings pour in this week. It will be the busiest week for first-quarter earnings reports and at least 156 companies in the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index are expected to pound investors with quarterly results.
To be sure, some say the bad news is mostly out of the way after a record number of warnings sent markets slumping earlier this month.
``It's already in the market,'' said Phil Orlando, chief investment officer for Value Line Asset Management, which oversees $6 billion and is boosting its holdings of tech stocks. ``We believe markets have achieved the bottom and we're looking at significant upside potential over the next 12 to 18 months.''
Traders will scrutinize earnings this week from telecommunications bellwethers WorldCom Inc. and AT&T Corp. as well as media giant Viacom Inc. and energy companies Halliburton Co. and Chevron Corp.
They also will keep an eye on a slew of government data for an indication of whether the Fed will be prompted to slash rates again at its May 15 meeting, and if so, by how much. Data expected include jobless claims, employee wage costs and first-quarter gross domestic product.
Wall Street Roars Higher
Stocks rallied for the second week as investors bet the outlook for corporate profits was brightening after the Fed unexpectedly cut interest rates between meetings for the second time this year.
The Nasdaq composite index, surged 10.3 percent, while the blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average advanced 4.5 percent and the broader S&P 500 clambered out of bear territory, gaining 5 percent.
Some positive, though hardly glowing, corporate earnings reports boosted confidence still further. International Business Machines Corp., for one, soared 7.5 percent on Thursday after the world's largest computer maker reported profit that met expectations and reaffirmed its long-term growth targets.
The blush was fading, though, by Friday. Stock indexes slumped as a mixed bag of earnings reports reawakened investors' fears the Fed's rate cut wouldn't help corporate profits anytime soon.
Sun Microsystems Inc. sank 5 percent after the networking computing giant said it was not clear if the economic downturn was ending.
``We went too far, too fast,'' said John Forelli, senior vice president at Independence Investment Associates, which oversees $20 billion. ``We should be happy if the market holds on to half of the gains it made.
'Fragile Moment' In Earnings
Of the 235 companies in the S&P 500 to have reported first-quarter earnings, 57 percent have surpassed expectations. Still, about 36 percent of companies in the index had lowered their earnings outlook, according to Thomson Financial/First Call. About 30 percent have met estimates.
While most companies in the S&P 500 are beating reduced expectations, almost half are reporting profits below those figures.
This harsh reality has some money managers doubtful of whether the good news based on reduced expectations will provide a solid basis for stocks' recovery to prior highs.
``The market is fooling itself,'' said Cummins Catherwood, a managing director with Philadelphia-based Rutherford, Brown & Catherwood, which manages about $750 million in stocks and bonds. ``It's like saying: 'I'm so glad the teacher only hit me twice across the knuckles.'''
Stocks are at ``a very fragile moment.'' Investors have recovered some of their confidence but could easily lose it if, for instance, the government were to release discouraging economic figures, Catherwood said.
Economic reports expected this week, include data on consumer confidence on Tuesday, new home sales on Wednesday, the Employment Cost Index on Thursday and the figures on the gross domestic product on Friday.