Will This Week's Earnings Reports Reflect a Recovery or a Relapse for the U.S. Economy?

Several key second-quarter earnings reports could either validate or undercut assertions that the U.S. economy is poised for recovery.

After the Commerce Department reported last week that retail sales fell 0.1% in July from June, and 8.3% year-over-year, retailers will stay in the limelight this week as several high-profile companies report second-quarter earnings. Target Corp. (NYSE: TGT), Limited Brands Inc. (NYSE: LTD), and Gap Stores (NYSE: GPS) are among the big-name retailers set to report. 

Meanwhile, the Hewlett-Packard Co’s (NYSE: HPQ) report will provide a further glimpse into the world of technology, and The Home Depot Co.’s (NYSE: HD) results will confirm or counter claims that the recent housing rebound is for real.  On that note, the upcoming economic releases include July housing starts and existing home sales, while the wholesale inflation gauge may show that price pressures are not yet creeping into the producers’ side of the equation either.

Market Matters                       

While many more bearish analysts continue to proclaim “gloom and doom” and a drop back to the March-lows in equities, at least one noted naysayer may have shifted to the other team.  Hedge fund manager John Paulson purchased over $165 million shares of Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) to become the banking giant’s fourth largest shareholder.  Paulson was among the select few who predicted the subprime debacle, so his allocation into financials may be interpreted as a nice vote of confidence from an unexpected source. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve made a few bold moves to promote its case for recovery as well.  Following the policy meeting, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke announced his intent to cease the program of buying up to $300 billion of Treasuries in October, as a major economic lifeline may have served its purpose well.  Additionally, banks have scaled back borrowing from the Fed’s emergency short-term lending facility, a sign that the frozen credit markets have thawed considerably. 

Finally, the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS), popularly known as “Cash for Clunkers,” was expanded, allowing car buyers to receive vouchers for future purchases as automakers report dwindling inventories. 

Retailers took center stage in the earnings game as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) and Kohl’s Corp. (KSS) beat expectations, but still offered cautious projections for the months ahead (including the upcoming holiday season).  Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M) posted a declining profit, but gave an optimistic outlook, as it benefits from cost-cutting measures.  Liz Claiborne Inc. (NYSE: LIZ), on the other hand, reported a wider loss and new streamlining plans and J.C. Penney Co. (NYSE: JCP) issued some pessimistic comments about the state of the consumer.  

Seemingly recession-proof McDonalds Corp. (NYSE: MCD) announced strong July same-store sales as its coffee drinks competed effectively with the “big boys.”  On the transactional front, China continued its expansion into the global commodities markets as China National Petroleum Corp. and CNOOC Ltd. (NYSE ADR: CEO) have eyes on the Argentinean unit of Repsol YPF SA's (NYSE: REP) to the tune of $17 billion.  Microsoft Corp. (NYSE: MSFT) and Nokia Corp. (NYSE ADR: NOK) are teaming up to take on PDA leader Research in Motion Ltd. (Nasdaq: RIMM) in an alliance that brings the popular software together with a solid cellular player.

Fixed income investors got a boost from a successful 30-year bond auction, as $75 billion in new Treasury securities were well-received during the week.  The Treasury also announced a plan to issue more TIPS (inflation-adjusted bonds), a move aimed at alleviating concerns in China (the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt) that the government would allow a surge in inflation as it tries to finance the stimulus plans. 

Higher inflation would increase the yields on TIPS and result in greater costs for the government.  Bond prices fell mid-week after the Fed announced its intent to end its Treasury purchase program, though the auction news was a welcome relief and a late-week flight-to-quality also ensued.

Investors focused on the lackluster consumer activity – illustrated by both earnings and economic releases – and worried that economic growth will be stunted as long as shoppers remain in hibernation. 

Despite favorable reviews by the Fed, major equity indexes gave up slight ground during the week with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and Nasdaq Composite Index still flirting with 1,000 and 2,000 respectively. 


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Economically Speaking

No rest for the weary (especially when auditioning to keep a job).  Fed Chief Bernanke guided the latest Fed policy meeting that saw strong signs (and language) pointing to the recession nearing an end.  The Fed claimed the economy is “leveling out” and felt the Treasury purchase program could go away with no material detriment to the nation’s financial system. 

The accompanying statement also indicated that the funds rate would remain just above zero for “an extended period” as many anticipate the recovery will be slow to take hold.  Noted economists apparently have Bernanke’s back as a recent survey revealed that most prefer he remain on as Fed Chair for another four-year term and President Barack Obama should reappoint him based on his strong performance in righting the ship during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression

 Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner shared some tough talk as he objected to certain concerns that major financial companies have not learned their lessons and the recent profits are indications of pre-crisis-like risk-taking. 

The economic data of the week offered mixed signals as retail sales surprisingly declined in July despite the popularity of the “clunker” program, though continuous claims for unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level since April. 

The anticipated rebirth of the consumer may be on hold for now as the Reuters/U. of Michigan sentiment index fell again and individuals continue to worry about the state of the job market. 

While the trade deficit increased in June, exports climbed for the second consecutive month and manufacturers experienced increased demand for products like semiconductors and telecommunication devises.  Likewise, industrial production rose in July as the “new and improved” domestic automakers attempt to get back on track. 

On another favorable note, inflation remains a non-issue as the consumer price index (CPI) was unchanged from June and prices have fallen by 2.1% over the past year.  On the global stage, the French and German economies posted surprising growth in the second quarter and, though the broader Eurozone countries continue to contract, the recovery is already taking hold in that region of the world.  

Weekly Economic Calendar

Date Release Comments
August 12 Balance of Trade (06/09) Increase in exports good news for manufacturing
  Fed Policy Meeting Statement Economy appeared to be "leveling out"
August 13 Initial Jobless Claims (08/08) Lowest level of continuing claims since April 11
  Retail Sales (07/09) Disappointing decline despite “clunkers” program
August 14 CPI (07/09) Sharpest year-over-year price drop since 1950
  Industrial Production (07/09) 1st increase in 9 months
The Week Ahead    
August 18 Housing Starts (07/09)  
  PPI (07/09)  
August 20 Initial Jobless Claims (08/15)  
  Leading Indicators (07/09)  
August 21 Existing Homes Sales (07/09)  

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