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With global economic policies hamstrung, investors turn to earnings

Michael Santoli
Michael Santoli

As markets become unsettled this week witnessing the stark limits of global finance policy, investors now direct their fraying hopes toward private-sector profits.

The war of wills and vexing bureaucratic maneuvers that have Greece in a brutal economic limbo drag on.

In China, desperate and transparent government attempts to stem the nasty reversal of the mainland market melt-up have so far been ineffective.

And with it all, the U.S. bond market has swiftly lost confidence in the Federal Reserve’s ability to follow through on its hopes to begin cinching-up interest rate policy in the next few months.

All of these policy-making setbacks could well prove temporary, of course. And so far there has not been an observable chain reaction of capital-markets contagion resulting from them.

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Yet the squishy results of these market-steering efforts are weighing steadily on risk appetites at a time when a few of the once-reliable themes running through this bull market have faltered.

Industrial, energy and other global cyclical stocks have been beaten-up badly, with weak oil prices and stronger dollar contributing to growth fears. In past phases of weakness for these groups, the yield stocks have taken up the slack. But with Treasury yields still well above their recent lows, the utilities, REITs and consumer staples stocks are of little help now.

One measure of equity-market risk maintained by Societe Generale is showing the highest chance since 2007 of a bear market in coming months – though this probability is still only about one-in-four.

Meantime, what might be called the financial-engineering theme has also sputtered out for the moment.

The shares of aggressive stock-buyback companies have faded from the lead, as shown by the softness in the PowerShares Buyback Acheivers ETF (PKW).

The popular game of buying stocks of corporate spinoffs has also proven to be no sure thing, with the Guggenheim Spin-Off ETF (CSD) slipping from favor.

And even the gimmick of aping billionaire investing legends – many of them activist investors – has turned south. Just look at the Direxion iBillionaire Index ETF (IBLN).

This sense of investing shortcuts turning to dead ends is concentrating attention on the corporate earnings season about to begin Wednesday with Alcoa’s (AA) always over-hyped but convenient season-kickoff report.

There is some hope here that, once again, analysts have chopped away at their forecasts enough that companies will relatively easily surpass estimates – as happened three months ago.

Morgan Stanley flatly states that “Expectations are too low” and “We see the upcoming earnings season as a catalyst for the US stock market.”

Second-quarter estimates for seven of the ten industry sectors have been reduced over the past three months, and there have been three negative preannouncements for every positive one. Meantime, early-reporting companies have beaten forecasts, on average.

In some ways, the market is in a setup similar to the one that prevailed the last time Alcoa issued results, on April 8th. The S&P 500 (^GSPC) then was a couple of percent below its recent all-time high, and is now off 3%. Analysts had rapidly cut profit expectations then, as now.

And from there, the reporting season itself was noisy but the broad market managed to find footing and gain some ground over the next three weeks – though not decisively to new highs.

Investors have been craving a transition from oppressive global macro themes to more localized corporate stories. Perhaps we’ll finally get such a reprieve, as company performance commands more headlines.

Or maybe this run of frustration with official-policy impotence will simply fuel hopes for what Fed Chair Janet Yellen will say Friday about the one thing that has reliably captured the markets’ attention: the path of U.S. monetary policy. That would be somewhat unfortunate, but fitting.

 

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