On the whole, the performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI ) this week reflects a bullish sentiment across the American markets as we get into the thick of earnings season. The Dow recorded three straight days ending in positive territory, despite the fact that several components showed concern about volatile global markets.
Two diversified industrial giants, 3M (NYSE: MMM ) and United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) , kicked off the week. 3M exceeded Wall Street's forecast but revealed the first signs of developing trends -- sales in Europe were unsurprisingly dismal, Asia showed weakness, and the Americas were picking up the slack. First-quarter net income came in at $1.59 per share, $0.11 ahead of analysts' forecasts, bolstered by strong growth in Latin America and the U.S.
On the flip side, United Tech went a step further in addressing Europe's bleak situation, describing European markets as "awful" and stating, "We haven't seen anything that suggests we are going to see a sustainable recovery in Europe this year." Europe's woes have been built into many forecasts for 2012, however, so executives and analysts appear relatively unconcerned. Set the expectations low enough, and who knows -- you might be surprised.
The countries that concern investors the most are the ones that were supposed to show robust growth, notably emerging Asian economies and Brazil. Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) reported that neither market was growing at the clip previously hoped for. China accounts for 10% of Caterpillar's business in Asia and 3% of revenue. This might seem nominal on the whole, but Caterpillar embarked on a spending spree in recent years, opening up 16 manufacturing facilities in China with nine more on the way. When the company mentioned that heavy equipment machines were being exported from mainland China to nearby markets due to weak demand, investors found the news concerning. Management may have overestimated demand, but they stuck to their guns, stating, "Our mid-to long-term forecast has not changed."
For American companies, China's economy still offers tremendous promise, and execution is more important than a slightly misguided forecast. American companies are performing well when you consider their European counterparts. Industrial conglomerate Siemens (NYSE: SI ) , while not a Dow component, showed troubling signs when it revealed that management underestimated the complexity of a key energy investment in offshore wind power.
Other European companies seem to be facing headwinds as well, and the outlook remains murky. Considering the uncertain environment, a company's outlook sometimes carries more weight than its recent results. Looking into the future, investors should focus on key metrics -- like backlog for a lot of industrials -- to see if companies can maintain their momentum. So far, the American conglomerates are finding pockets of growth even when China seems to be stepping on the brakes. A good bet is to stick with strong brands that have established themselves across the world. Our best analysts picked the best of the best in our special report, "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World." Download a free copy for a limited time.