(Thursday Market Open) The floodgates open today as earnings pour in from all over and some of the biggest tech companies get ready to share results this afternoon. Stock futures took another dip before the opening bell, despite gains in Europe and a host of solid earnings reports late Wednesday.
One thing to watch: It seems like expectations are growing as earnings season continues, arguably making it harder for companies to impress the Street. For instance, shares of Microsoft (MSFT) fell in pre-market futures trading despite an impressive quarter.
Thursday is “Big A” day on Wall Street, with earnings due from Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Alibaba (BABA), and Alphabet (GOOG). AAPL might steal the spotlight, simply because the stock has been so volatile lately amid rumors of sinking iPhone demand. Both the Nikkei Asian Review and the Wall Street Journal recently reported that AAPL is slashing its iPhone X production target in half in the first calendar quarter of 2018. Investors should learn more later today.
For the first quarter of fiscal 2018, AAPL is expected to report adjusted earnings per share (EPS) of $3.82, up from $3.36 compared to last year, on revenue of $86.29 billion, a 10.1% year-over-year increase, according to third-party consensus analyst estimates. Management previously issued guidance for revenue between $84 billion and $87 billion for this quarter.
BABA shares initially slumped in pre-market futures trading after the online retailer reported earnings per share that missed Wall Street’s consensus. However, revenue rose 56% in the quarter and easily surpassed analysts’ forecasts. The stock gained momentum ahead of the opening bell. Meanwhile, another e-commerce stock, EBay (EBAY), saw shares jump 10% in pre-market futures trading despite mixed results. EBay broke up with PayPal and now is signing the divorce papers, and from this point will go back to taking their own payments. That could be a big revenue source and that appears to be what’s driving the stock.
There didn’t appear to be anything in Wednesday’s post-bell results to shake confidence in this robust earnings season. The list of big hitters reporting better than expected Q4 revenue and profits included Facebook (FB), AT&T (T), and Microsoft (MSFT). Shares of T jumped in post-market trading on really good earnings and strong guidance. Adding telephone customers was a big surprise. MSFT shares fell despite the company’s beat and share gains for MSFT in cloud computing. That’s puzzling, but perhaps it reflects the big run MSFT has already had. Time Warner (TWX) also had good results.
FB shares initially took a dive after CEO Mark Zuckerberg said people are spending less time on the site due to recent changes. That has some investors concerned about possible falling ad revenue. Then shares came roaring back and rose solidly in pre-market futures trading.
After galloping to a fast start early Wednesday, the stock market spent most of the day trotting backward and ended up with barely any gains. Perhaps it’s possible to blame this on the Fed. Though rates stayed unchanged, the post-meeting statement brought inflation fears back into the spotlight with the words, “measures of inflation have increased in recent months.” To some analysts who make a living deciphering “Fed speak,” that meant the Fed might be signaling more than three rate hikes could be on the table this year. However, the Fed didn’t say that in so many words, so investors might want to consider going with the Fed’s current projection for three hikes until they hear anything further.
Odds of a rate hike by March jumped to 83% in the hours after the Fed meeting, according to CME Group futures, and odds rise to 60% for another hike on top of that one by June. Probabilities for a third 2018 hike by September reached nearly 40%, while chances of a fourth rate hike this year stand at about 25%. As anyone knows from watching the Fed, the beginning of February is really early to make any solid predictions about what economic conditions might be like late in the year. Remember in 2016 when several expected hikes throughout the year turned into just one in December.
With the Fed out of the way for now, non-farm payrolls for January lie straight ahead Friday morning, and Wall Street analysts appear to expect a rebound from December’s somewhat tepid headline number of 148,000. The consensus on Wall Street is for January job growth of 180,000, according to Briefing.com. The unemployment rate is seen unchanged at 4.1%, with hourly wages expected to rise 0.3%, the same as in December (see below for more).
In data news, The Chicago PMI for January hit 65.7, down from 67.6 in December. It looks like manufacturing activity in the Chicago Fed region is still humming along near multi-year high levels. The January 2018 reading was the best January reading in seven years, Briefing.com noted.
Farewell, Yellen: Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s last Fed meeting yesterday brings to mind how much things have changed since she took the reins four years ago. Back when previous Fed Chair Ben Bernanke presided over his last meeting in January 2014, the Fed was just beginning to scale back its bond-buying program and hadn’t hiked rates in nearly eight years. The Fed’s benchmark interest rate was effectively at zero (or lower, if you take “quantitative easing” into account). Yellen departs with five rate hikes under her belt since late 2015 and many at the Fed projecting three more hikes this year and rates climbing to around 3% by 2020.
Now it’s in the hands of new Fed Chair Jerome Powell, who many analysts think shares some of Yellen’s philosophies. It’s never safe to predict, but it seems unlikely the Fed would veer much from what it’s been doing even with a new hand on the tiller and several other new members. That said, this isn’t a veteran Fed. With Yellen’s departure, the governors will have just 10 years of collective board experience, Bloomberg News reported, the lowest number since Ronald Reagan’s second term in 1988.
Pay Prognosis: The headline employment figure in tomorrow’s payrolls report might draw initial attention, but investors might want to consider keeping a close eye on wage growth. Wall Street analysts expect a repeat in January of the 0.3% hourly wage rise we saw in December, but any upward surprise here could bring inflation fears back to the table. The question is whether rising wages eventually might lead to companies passing along the costs to consumers. If that starts happening, pressure could grow on the Fed to be extra careful and make sure the economy doesn’t heat up too much.
Look at the average hourly earnings for the full year as well. They rose 2.5% in December, the same as in November, and are trending a little bit above the consumer price index (CPI), which was up 2.1% year-over-year in December. These are pretty healthy numbers, but if job growth continues to focus in the sectors where we saw it in December, when areas like construction, health care, and manufacturing, wages could see more upside, perhaps feeding into some of the inflation concerns the Fed expressed Wednesday.
Taking a Dip: We talked above about how people have been buying the dips. One concern, however, is that higher Treasury yields might scare some away who were buying dips previously. Another question is whether these buyers’ appetites might dry up if the market has an extended decline of more than 2%. The last time there was a real slow-down in the S&P 500 (SPX) was back in August and early September. The SPX peaked at 2490 intraday on Aug. 8, and then fell as low as 2417 by Aug. 21. It didn’t close above its Aug. 8 closing price until Sept. 1 and didn’t get above the Aug. 8 intraday high until Sept. 12. Investors didn’t seem too perturbed by that lull, sending the SPX up to 100 points above its August lows by the end of September. The 10-year rate then, however, was down around 2.3%, compared to above 2.7% now. Lower yields tend to help the stock market, as we’ve seen over the last few years. That low-yield environment seems to be ending, so the stock market might be entering a new phase.
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