Wall St Week Ahead: 'Cliff' concerns give way to earnings focus

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Investors' Investors' "fiscal cliff" worries are likely to give way to more fundamental concerns. (Reuters)
SummaryInvestors' "fiscal cliff" worries are likely to give way to more fundamental concerns.

Investors' "fiscal cliff" worries are likely to give way to more fundamental concerns, like earnings, as fourth-quarter reports get under way next way.

Financial results, which begin after the market closes on Tuesday with aluminum company Alcoa, are expected to be only slightly better than the third-quarter's lackluster results. As a warning sign, analyst current estimates are down sharply from what they were in October.

That could set stocks up for more volatility following a week of sharp gains that put the Standard & Poor's 500 index on Friday at the highest close since Dec. 31, 2007. The index also registered its biggest weekly percentage gain in more than a year.

Based on a Reuters analysis, Europe ranks among the chief concerns cited by companies that warned on fourth-quarter results. Uncertainty about the region and its weak economic outlook were cited by more than half of the 25 largest S&P 500

companies that issued warnings.

In the most recent earnings conference calls, macroeconomic worries were cited by 10 companies while the U.S. "fiscal cliff" was cited by at least nine as reasons for their earnings warnings.

"The number of things that could go wrong isn't so high, but the magnitude of how wrong they could go is what's worrisome," said Kurt Winters, senior portfolio manager for Whitebox Mutual Funds in Minneapolis.

Negative-to-positive guidance by S&P 500 companies for the fourth quarter was 3.6 to 1, the second worst since the third quarter of 2001, according to Thomson Reuters data.

U.S. lawmakers narrowly averted the "fiscal cliff" by coming to a last-minute agreement on a bill to avoid steep tax hikes this weeks – driving the rally in stocks – but the battle over further spending cuts is expected to resume in two months. Investors also have seen a revival of worries about Europe's sovereign debt problems, with Moody's in November downgrading France's credit rating and debt crises looming for Spain and other countries.

"You have a recession in Europe as a base case. Europe is still the biggest trading partner with a lot of U.S. companies, and it's still a big chunk of global capital spending," said Adam Parker, chief U.S. equity strategist at Morgan Stanley in

New York.

Among companies citing worries about Europe was eBay , whose chief financial officer, Bob Swan, spoke of "macro pressures from Europe" in the company's October earnings conference call.

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