Heading into the last full trading week of 2015, stocks still haven't committed to a direction, up or down, for the year. The S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) is lower by less than 2% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) has slipped less than 3% since Jan. 1.
The coming week could do a lot to break that stalemate, as the markets will likely move following the Federal Reserve's interest-rate meeting. Meanwhile, General Mills (NYSE:GIS) is set to post its fiscal-second-quarter earnings results and Disney (NYSE:DIS) will make a play for the biggest movie opening in history.
Tuesday, Dec. 16: Interest rate liftoff
The Federal Reserve begins a two-day monetary policy meeting on Tuesday that is widely expected to produce the first uptick in the central bank's federal funds rate in nine years. That rate has been effectively zero since late 2008.
Yet in a recent speech, Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen noted that officials have seen "continued improvement" in many of the key metrics, like employment growth and economic activity, that they've been looking for to support a return to non-zero interest rates.
Since that speech, the economic picture has only brightened. The monthly jobs report last week showed that the economy produced over 200,000 new jobs as the unemployment rate held steady at a seven-year low of 5%. While investors can expect the Fed to begin raising rates this week, they shouldn't count on a quick lift off. Central bank officials' latest projections put interest rates below 3% as far out as 2017.
Thursday, Dec. 17: Checking in on gluten-free Cheerios
Packaged foods giant General Mills posts earnings results on Thursday that could show a slowdown in both sales and profit growth. At its last quarterly update, the company had some encouraging news for investors. Sure, sales slipped by 1%, but after accounting for currency swings, that figure was actually 4% growth. Leading the way was General Mills' cereal division, which was boosted by strong performance in its new gluten-free Cheerios offerings. That growth, combined with cost cuts, helped the company log a 23% spike in operating profit as EPS leapt 25% higher to $0.69 per share.
Wall Street pros aren't expecting as strong a set of headline figures this quarter. Consensus estimates expect reported sales to slip by 2% while EPS ticks higher to $0.83 per share from $0.80 per share last year. Investors will be watching for how the cereal business is doing, especially since General Mills was forced to recall of a number of Cheerios products after discovering that wheat had made its way into several gluten free-varieties of their offerings.
Friday, Dec. 18: Disney brings The Force
Expectations couldn't get much higher for Friday's release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In fact, the latest box office tracking figures project the movie will earn $220 million in receipts this weekend, which would allow Disney to reclaim the top spot for U.S. theatrical openings. The House of Mouse had owned that No. 1 position since 2012's The Avengers (notably from Marvel, which, like Lucasfilm, was a multibillion-dollar Disney acquisition), before yielding it to Comcast's Jurassic World this past summer.
Of course, it's possible that the film could fail to live up to investors' high expectations. It has been a decade since a Star Wars movie was put through the box office test, after all, and the brand doesn't currently have the same recognition around the world that the Avengers franchise enjoys.
But even if Episode VII doesn't make it into the top three highest grossing films of all time with $3 billion of global receipts, it is likely to set the stage for six years of popular annual theatrical Star Wars releases, along with all the related consumer product profits that Disney can collect along the way.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that GIS will be reporting fiscal-second-quarter results.