Today is an interesting day to be an observer of the stock market.
Aluminum giant Alcoa (AA) kicked off earnings season less than 24 hours ago, investors and analysts are still parsing last night's speech by the Federal Reserve chairman, and trading in two stocks was halted this morning due to an insider-trading scandal at one of the nation's largest accounting firms.
You'd never know this, however, by looking at the performance of blue-chip stocks today. With roughly an hour left in the trading session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 0.24%) is up by 97 points, or 0.66%.
While Alcoa is certainly not the economic bellwether it once was, its earnings release is nevertheless noteworthy, as it marks the unofficial start of earnings season. For the three months ended March 31, the company earned $0.11 per share, comfortably exceeding the consensus estimate of $0.08 -- though its top-line revenue figure came up short of expectations.
The next Dow component at bat is JPMorgan Chase (JPM 0.23%). The nation's largest bank by assets is scheduled to report earnings on Friday. Analysts anticipate that the bank will earn $1.39 per share, an increase of nearly 10% over the same quarter last year.
At about the same time Alcoa was reporting its results, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was delivering remarks at a financial-markets conference near Atlanta, Ga. The purpose of the talk was to discuss bank stress-testing, though Bernanke couldn't avoid the subject of the economy, given last Friday's dismal jobs report. According to Bernanke, "Today the economy is significantly stronger than it was four years ago, although conditions are clearly still far from where we would all like them to be."
The remarks left analysts wondering if and when the Fed might finally ease off of the aggressive monetary policy that has driven long-term interest rates down to near-historic levels.
Finally, the two biggest pieces of news today both concerned stocks owned by activist investor Bill Ackman. First, J.C. Penney (JCPN.Q) announced that CEO Ron Johnson has been shown the door and replaced by former J.C. Penney CEO Myron Ullman. The retailer has been reeling from Johnson's attempted makeover of the brand, which has thus far led to massive declines in same-store sales. The stock is down nearly 12% on the news.
And second, trading in shares of Herbalife (HLF -1.70%) was temporarily halted this morning after it was reported that KPMG had resigned as its auditor. Although there's been much speculation about the possibility that Herbalife is a Ponzi scheme -- this is Ackman's position and thus the reason he's short Herbalife stock -- today's move involves KPMG instead. It turns out that a partner at the firm had been leaking inside information about Herbalife and another company to a still-unknown outfit, which then traded on the inside information.