Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Earnings Check-up Spurs Stocks Higher

A big surprise from homebuilder D.R. Horton (DHI) pushed stocks higher on Tuesday, as optimism spread that the US economy was truly on the rebound. The company said it earned $192 million, or 56 cents per share, in its fiscal first quarter, after analysts' called for a loss of $62.6 million, or 13 cents per share. The gigantic improvement, however, was mostly due to a tax gain of $149 million, making the true earnings picture much cloudier. Shares of D.H. Horton rose nearly 11% on the day.

Additionally, Emerson Electric (EMR) beat estimates, posting a profit, though a smaller one than last year at the same time.

Dow Chemical (DOW) may have had the most sobering and honest report of the day, though. The company earned $87 million, or 8 cents per share, compared to a loss of $1.55 billion, or $1.68 a share, in the year-ago period. While becoming profitable again, Chairman and Chief Executive Andrew Liveris warned that growth in the US and Europe may lag and that the overall global economy remains uneven.

Investors took all of this in stride and bought stocks like they were going out of style, which, to some degree, they actually are. There's more and more investor skittishness stemming from the financial meltdown of '08 and the missteps and inconsistent signals from both the administration and congress aren't helping matters much. A ton of money is still parked in money market funds or headed into less-mainstream investments.

Stocks are below their recent highs, though not down far enough to encourage the kind of wide-eyed participation seen today.

With the January non-farms payroll data due out on Friday, and ADP's private employment survey hitting the wires prior to Wednesday's open, the two-day rally may be more of a bounce than a lasting event. Unemployment remains stubbornly high and any disappointment in the upcoming employment data may skewer those who rushed in yesterday and today.

Besides the worries over unemployment, price rises in stocks are pushing p/e ratios close to nosebleed territory even though many companies have not increased revenues to the point at which they are planning to hire.

Dow 10,296.85, +111.32 (1.09%)
NASDAQ 2,190.06, +18.86 (0.87%)
S&P 500 1,103.32, +14.14 (1.30%)
NYSE Composite 7,101.44, +93.21 (1.33%)

Advancing issues outpaced decliners by a healthy margin for the second straight day, 4470-2051. There were 157 new highs, to just 57 new lows. Volume was very good, though not out of the recent range.

NYSE Volume 5,502,060,000
NASDAQ Volume 2,508,011,500

Commodities advanced, with crude oil leading the charge, up $1.77, to $77.23. Gold rose $13.20, to 1,118.20. Silver gained 8 cents to $16.74.

The major indices fell through their 50-day moving averages last week, so a snap-back rally like this is not unconventional. Notably, the 50-day moving average for the Dow Jones Industrials has reversed course, pointing lower for the first time since July of last year. It's going to take more than a few company earnings reports to restore confidence and resume last year's miracle rally.

A more probable outcome is that stocks languish further after earnings dissipate from investors' minds and the focus shifts more toward economic reports, the government and outside events. Growth in the economy has returned, but the stock market gains were so overdone in '09 that there's little upside from here.

Adding to the confusion are housing and unemployment, which remain the bogey men in the closet. Nobody is going to sleep well until foreclosure data begins to subside and employment begins to perk up. For now, it's mostly empty rhetoric and cheerleading from major firms and the entrenched financial reporters who toil on Wall Street.

Real estate markets across the country are still reeling, government budgets are broken, especially in municipalities of more than 100,000, and jobs simply are not being created by the biggest companies. The stimulus package passed by congress last year only staved off a depression. Another round of stimuli - focused on Main Street and small business - is essential to sustain any momentum that's been garnered.

As for stocks, they're generally 20-30% below their 2007 highs, and while many investors are hoping for a return to those levels, that outcome is highly in doubt because stock prices were wildly over-inflated at that juncture. The collapse of the market was more a predestined event than a surprise, so bullish arguments for continuation of the rally - which seems to have fallen apart - ring hollow.

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