After a downright terrible couple of weeks for the stock market, it's easy to forget that we've been in the middle of a huge bull market in stocks for more than three-and-a-half years now. Even though the Dow Jones Industrials (INDEX: ^DJI ) have lost around 500 points so far in November, that's only a small portion of the nearly 6,000 points that the average has picked up since bottoming in March 2009.
Going into this latest earnings season, though, many foresaw that the bull market might come to an end. With earnings projected to fall for the first time in three years, investors braced for some ugly results. With all but one company having reported for the quarter, however, the news hasn't been quite as bad as expected.
Not great, but less bad than feared
Looking back at the 29 Dow components that have reported earnings so far, 18 have managed to beat analyst expectations for the third quarter. Moreover, the same number have topped year-ago results, although the 18 specific companies aren't the same in both instances. Given that we went into the quarter expecting fully half of the Dow's members to post declines, the news is a mild positive surprise.
Unfortunately, some of the biggest beats in percentage terms came from relatively small companies within the Dow. Travelers (NYSE: TRV ) , for instance, saw earnings nearly triple from last year's levels, beating expectations by 38% simply because of a lack of major storm activity in the third quarter compared to last year. Of course, Hurricane Sandy will likely pull results down in the fourth quarter, but on the whole, 2011 was such a bad year that even with Sandy's impact, Travelers will likely post a much better 2012 on a year-over-year basis.
Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) also made a strong report for the quarter, with earnings per share beating estimates by 14% on a 49% jump from last year's third quarter. What investors focused on at Caterpillar, though, was rare negative long-term guidance -- something almost never seen on Wall Street -- reining in expectations for Caterpillar as far out as 2015. Admittedly, it will take time for macroeconomic issues in the U.S., China, and other major markets to play themselves out. But the warning despite an otherwise fairly positive report threw water on investors' faces, leaving them to consider the possibility that short-term strength could give way to another wave down for the global economy.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Unfortunately from the standpoint of the overall average, some of the Dow's biggest contributors to revenue and earnings were the ones that posted the least promising results. Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , for example, saw earnings per share plunge by more than a third compared with 2011's third quarter, as a combination of production cuts and lower prices led the oil giant to miss Wall Street expectations by about 9%. Rival ExxonMobil managed to beat expectations, but even so, it still posted a minor drop compared to last year's figures. Overall, the drop in prices isn't terribly alarming, given the fact that economic growth worldwide is slowing and therefore expected declines in energy demand should push prices lower. But investors should watch production trends closely to make sure that they're a one-time blip rather than the beginning of a longer trend.
Meanwhile, tech giant Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) had a similar experience, with a 5% earnings-per-share miss compared with analysts' estimates and a 22% drop compared to last year. The year-over-year drop was no big surprise, given that the software company was gearing up for its release of the Windows 8 operating system. Often, consumers choose to wait for new versions to come out before buying computers, leading to a drop in sales during the quarter leading up to a big release. Longer-term, though, comments from CEO Steve Ballmer that the Windows 8 release has received only a tepid response could have bigger consequences for the company in the current quarter and beyond.
After a brief lull, most investors expect a quick return to earnings growth for the broader market. If that fails to come to pass, then it could cause big problems for the market going forward. But a strong earnings rebound could create another leg up for the bull market, making the current malaise a solid entry point for new investors.
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