Stocks close mixed as investors await start of 2nd-quarter earnings; Alcoa has upbeat report

By Stephen Bernard, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

Stocks in narrow range ahead of earnings season

NEW YORK — Stocks closed mixed Monday as investors grew more cautious while they waited for the start of second-quarter earnings reports. They got some good news after trading ended, when Alcoa Inc. reported better than expected results.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 18 points and the other big indexes also had slight gains. But almost two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, a sign that investors were wary about earnings.

Alcoa didn’t disappoint them. The aluminum maker beat analysts’ expectations, and it also said it was raising its forecast for consumption of the metal this year. That was particularly heartening for investors who have worried that the global economy was slowing, or even headed for another recession. The company’s stock rose nearly 3 percent in after-hours trading.

Investors made few big moves as they waited for Alcoa’s earnings. So they showed little reaction to news of several corporate acquisitions.

Insurance broker Aon Corp. said it will buy human resources company Hewitt Associates for $4.9 billion in cash and stock, and Playboy Enterprises Inc. founder Hugh Hefner offered to take the media company private. Also Avon Products Inc. agreed to buy Silpada Designs for $650 million in a bid to expand its jewelry business.

Investors generally see acquisitions as a sign that companies are confident and willing to spend cash to expand.

Earnings are likely to dominate trading for the next few weeks. Investors are seeking insight into the state of the economy not only from how well companies fared during the April-June period, but also from their forecasts for the coming quarters. In particular, investors want to see whether sluggish retail sales, waning consumer confidence and high unemployment have actually hurt corporate profits.

Greg Estes, fund manager at Intrepid Capital Funds in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., said of companies’ forecasts, “people are really wanting to see things get better.” He said some industries like technology were more likely to report improvement versus those that rely more on consumer spending.

Tech stocks rose after analysts upgraded their ratings of Qualcomm Inc. and SanDisk Corp. The analysts forecast continuing growth in the smart phone market.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 18.24, or 0.2 percent, to 10,216.27. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 0.79, or 0.1 percent, to 1,078.75, while the Nasdaq composite index rose 1.91, or 0.1 percent, to 2,198.36.

Consolidated volume on the NYSE, which includes shares traded on other exchanges, came to a light 3.47 billion shares as many investors chose to sit out the day while they waited for Alcoa’s report. On Friday, consolidated volume totaled 3.56 billion shares.

Investors’ caution followed the market’s biggest weekly gains in a year. Some analysts have questioned how long the rebound would last. But if earnings and companies’ forecasts are upbeat and indicate that the economic recovery is proceeding despite continuing high unemployment and weak consumer spending, investors are likely to keep buying. The Dow is still down 9 percent from its 2010 high reached in late April.

Economic news this week should shed some light about how well the recovery is going. In addition to earnings reports, readings are also due on retail sales, weekly jobless claims, manufacturing activity, consumer sentiment and inflation.

Alcoa rose to $11.23 in after-hours trading after falling 7 cents to $10.87 in regular trading.

Other materials stocks fell in regular trading. A drop in commodities imports in China, particularly copper, hurt shares of companies like Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold Inc. Its shares fell $2.76, or 4.2 percent, to $63.22.

Hewitt shares jumped $11.39, or 32.2 percent, to $46.79. Aon shares fell $2.72, or 7.1 percent, to $35.62. Playboy jumped $1.52, or 37.4 percent, to $5.58. Avon rose 15 cents to $28.42.

Qualcomm rose $1.19, or 3.5 percent, to $35.10. SanDisk rose $2.91, or 6.8 percent, to $45.81.

Bond prices traded in a tight range. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note was unchanged from late Friday at 3.06 percent.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 7.82, or 1.2 percent, to 621.61.

Overseas, Britain’s FTSE 100 rose 1.2 percent, Germany’s DAX index gained 0.2 percent, and France’s CAC-40 rose 0.4 percent. Japan’s Nikkei stock average dipped 0.4 percent after the ruling party lost elections Sunday.

July 13, 2010: 1:46 am

With the April-to-June quarter over, this is the time when companies could come out with warnings that their earnings will fall short of expectations.

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