Wall Street looks to earnings for direction

/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street faces another busy week with a passel of major earnings reports, and investors will also be watching for any surprises that might unfold in Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

Earnings will likely command most of investors’ attention as Wall Street debates whether profit growth will hold up and searches for signs of a larger slowdown that could prompt a reduction in short-term interest rates by the Federal Reserve. Results from scores of big companies such as American Express Co., Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp. are expected and will likely overshadow a comparatively light economic calendar.

Investors have shown particular interest in earnings forecasts because double-digit profit growth helped justify the robust gains in stocks last year. But investors have spent much of the new year in a more sober mood. Stocks have struggled to move higher as Wall Street has lost confidence that the Fed will soon lower rates. Robust earnings and strong economic reports, while good news over all, have damped enthusiasm that the economy will slow gently to cool inflation and make room for a rate cut.

Last week, the Dow industrials rose 0.08 percent, while the S&P fell 0.02 percent, and the Nasdaq lost 2.1 percent as investors reconsidered recent enthusiasm for technology stocks.

While earnings figures are expected to dominate, politics could play a larger-than-normal role in the coming week. On Tuesday, President Bush’s State of the Union speech is expected to touch on new efforts to curb global warming. While the White House has come out against mandatory caps in emissions of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, the business world could look for signals that increased regulation is in store. The speech could also hit on a range of topics that affect business from taxes to health care.

The intersection of business and government will again be in focus Wednesday when power brokers from businesses, governments and nonprofits gather for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Bold-faced names expected to attend from the business world include Google Inc. co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page as well as Citigroup Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Charles Prince.

On Monday, the Conference Board is scheduled to release its index of leading economic indicators. The reading attempts to predict the health of economy in six months.

On Tuesday, the Richmond Federal Reserve is expected to report on regional manufacturing.

Then, on Thursday, the Labor Department is expected to report weekly figures on jobless claims. The National Association of Realtors plans to release a report on existing home sales for December.

Friday brings a report from the Commerce Department on durable goods orders, which can offer insight into the manufacturing sector. The agency also plans to release its report on new home sales for December.

Earnings deluge
On Monday, American Express will kick off a busy week with its planned report of fourth-quarter results. Wall Street expects the company will earn 76 cents per share. The stock, which closed Friday at $58.09, has traded from $49.73 to $62.50 in the past 52 weeks.

Tuesday brings reports from drug maker Johnson & Johnson, which analysts expect will earn 79 cents per share for the fourth quarter. The stock closed at $67.76 Friday and has traded from $56.65 to $69.41 in the past 52 weeks.

Also due that day is a report from industrial conglomerate United Technologies Corp. The maker of Otis elevators and Pratt & Whitney aircraft equipment is seen as earning 85 cents per share. The stock has traded from $54.20 to $67.47 in the past 52 weeks and closed Friday at $65.18.

On Wednesday, online auction house eBay Inc. plans to report results; Wall Street is looking for earnings of 28 cents per share. The stock, which traded from $22.83 to $47.86 in the past 52 weeks, ended Friday at $29.66.

McDonald’s Corp. also plans to report fourth-quarter results Wednesday. The world’s largest fast-food chain is expected to earn 61 cents per share. The stock closed Friday at $44.81 and has traded from $31.73 to $45.06 in the past 52 weeks.

On Thursday, Ford Motor Co. is expected to show a loss of 97 cents per share for its fourth quarter. The automaker’s stock has traded between $6.06 and $9.48 in the past 52 weeks and closed Friday at $8.30.

Microsoft is also scheduled to post results Thursday. Wall Street expects the software company will earn 23 cents per share for its fiscal second quarter. The stock closed Friday at $31.11; it has traded from $21.45 to $31.45 in the past 52 weeks.

(MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Caterpillar Inc. is scheduled to end the week with a fourth-quarter report on Friday. The maker of construction and mining machinery is expected to earn $1.34 per share. The stock, which finished Friday at $59.37, has traded from $58.82 to $82.03 in the past 52 weeks.