3 Things to Know Ahead of the Opening Bell

Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over market movements, we do like to keep an eye on big changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) should start the week with a whimper. According to stock index futures as of 7:50 a.m. EDT, the Dow is set to lose a mere nine points at the opening bell.

The Federal Reserve's two-day policy meeting begins tomorrow, and traders are betting that the central bank will keep its easy-money plan in place for now. That, plus the fact that corporate profits have been generally strong this earnings season, has kept markets close to all-time highs. The Dow is up 19% so far this year.

With that bigger picture in mind, here are a few individual stock stories to watch for in today's market.

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) will be in focus as it reports earnings this afternoon. Wall Street expects the tech giant to book $7.93 a share in quarterly profit, which is down significantly from the $8.67 it earned last year. Falling gross margin is to blame for that dip, as sales should improve by about 3% to $37 billion. iPhone sales figures will be important to watch and should come in at about 33 million units. Also expect Apple to field more questions about its massive cash pile, which is likely to pass $150 billion. The stock is up 0.6% in premarket trading.

Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) this morning reported profit of $0.92 a share on $11 billion in quarterly sales. Analysts were looking for $0.88 in earnings and $11.12 billion in revenue. The company's vaccine, immunology, and HIV businesses were key contributors to earnings this quarter, but Merck's patent expirations pushed gross margin down slightly from 64% to 62.8%. Still, cost cuts helped keep overall profitability strong for the drug giant. Merck's shares are down 2.2% in premarket trading.

Finally, Burger King (NYSE: BKW  ) said this morning that its third-quarter earnings rose to $0.19 a share and that sales hit $275 million. The fast-food company's new "Satisfries" French fry launch drove traffic to restaurants but didn't accomplish much in the way of sales growth. Burger King's comparable sales fell by 0.3% in the U.S., making McDonald's 0.7% uptick look pretty strong in comparison. Burger King's shares are up 2.7% in premarket trading.

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