The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) had a strong week, rising more than 2% as earnings season kicked into full gear. Yet, even as nine different Dow components reported earnings during the week, consumer-facing stocks Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) were among those with the best share-price performance. The strength of those two stocks suggests that a catalyst for further gains for the Dow Jones Industrials could come from consumers if the economy continues to improve.
Admittedly, Johnson & Johnson has become much less of a consumer-products company over the years, and its first-quarter earnings report shows just how dependent the Dow component has become on its pharmaceutical division. Global sales of consumer-care products rose 0.6% in constant-currency terms, but a strong dollar made that translate into a decline of more than 3% in dollar terms. Part of that decline came from the sale of one of its product lines, and Johnson & Johnson did see some growth in its Zyrtec allergy medicine and Aveeno skin-care products. Yet, even with consumer-care and Johnson & Johnson's medical-device segment weighing on its overall growth, J&J's pharmaceuticals business soared again during the quarter, with double-digit percentage gains even after adjusting for currency. The strength came both from established drugs and from newer treatments, and it seems increasingly likely that Johnson & Johnson will live or die by the pharmaceutical sword for the foreseeable future -- boding well for the Dow Jones Industrials given its substantial pharma contingent.
By contrast, Coca-Cola is indisputably a consumer stock, and the resurgence of emerging-market growth contributed immensely to the soft-drink giant's overall results. Volume growth of 3% in developing and emerging markets might not seem like much, but with far better gains in China. and solid strength in Russia, India, and Brazil, Coca-Cola made the most of its opportunities there while weathering the storm of controversy surrounding its carbonated beverages in mature markets in North America and Europe. Coca-Cola will have to respond to the trend against both sugary sodas and diet beverages by making a far greater transformation in its business than it has ever had to do before, as non-carbonated drinks become more popular both in the U.S. and worldwide. With the marketing prowess and brand awareness that Coca-Cola has, the company still has some ability to create the positive consumer perception of whatever products it chooses to emphasize in the non-carbonated area.
The Dow Jones Industrials reflect conditions within the entire economy, but consumers make up a huge portion of the domestic and global economies. As such, when consumer-facing companies like Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson report their results, it's smart to pay attention to find clues of how financially healthy consumers are, and how they could drive the economy in the future.
Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson and has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.