Oil, Slowing Future Profits May Curb Stocks

Heading into the heart of earnings season next week the expected results look robust, but a slowing of future profit growth and the impact of surging oil prices on the economy could conspire to hold down stocks.

One more presidential debate remained for investors to digest. Barring a glaring goof by President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, markets are unlikely to react strongly to the final debate, analysts said.

For some, a surprisingly weak payrolls report Friday that showed only 96,000 jobs were added in September will sharpen criticism of Bush, though others said the election is still three weeks away and the news was just a minor irritant.

"People are trying to figure out what this dog race is going to turn into," said Scott Lynch, managing director of U.S. trading at CSFB. "We're going to stay within a trading range."

However, chief investment strategist Jeffrey Saut of Raymond James Financial said Kerry would likely spin the data to his advantage and make it very difficult for Bush.

"A Kerry victory from Wall Street's standpoint is not a good thing," Saut said, as a reduction in dividend taxes Bush had enacted could be in jeopardy under a Kerry presidency.

The second presidential debate was slated for Friday night, and the final one is scheduled next Wednesday in Phoenix.

For the week, all three major stock indexes declined, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling 1.4 percent, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index slipping 0.8 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index off 1.1 percent.

Government reports next Friday are expected to show retail sales for September gained 0.7 percent, and added 0.3 percent in the non-automotive sector, while the Producer Price Index (search), with or without food and energy, likely rose 0.1 percent in September.

A third report about the economy in September is expected to show industrial production gained 0.3 percent, with capacity edging up to 77.4 percent.

Key companies in technology and banking, including Intel Corp. (INTC) and Yahoo Inc. (YHOO)on Tuesday, and Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) on Thursday, report their results as the third-quarter earnings season gets in full swing.

There is a growing sentiment among investment strategists and money managers that it is a good earnings season, which will be good for stocks, said Elliot Spar, options market strategist with brokerage and investment bank Ryan Beck & Co.

"But looking underneath that mantra, the third quarter is old news," Spar said. "Going forward, the negative economic impact of $50-plus oil and decelerating earnings will be the headwinds that will keep the market capped on the upside."

Investors will look to government data on oil supplies on Wednesday for clues about future prices for a barrel of oil, which surged to a record $53.40 on the last day of the week.

Earnings growth is forecast to have peaked in the second quarter at 16.90 percent for companies that make up the S&P 500 Index, and is expected to slow dramatically in 2005.

Year-over-year quarterly growth may be higher in the fourth quarter than the third, but that rate is likely to tumble to single digits in 2005, according to Reuters Estimates.

Earnings at Bank of America and Citigroup will be good, while Intel, part of the beaten-down semiconductor sector, has been doing OK, said Bill Punk, managing partner at Punk Ziegel & Co.

Some biotech companies and drugmakers are under pressure, he said. Merck & Co. (MRK), Pfizer Inc. (PFE) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) have tumbled on concerns about their arthritis drugs, after Merck pulled its blockbuster Vioxx (search) from the market on Sept. 30.

"A lot of these stocks year-end are going to be good buys, they'll be good opportunities," Punk said. "Towards the end of the year you're going to have some tax selling, and you can buy into that tax selling."