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Dow Earnings: Investors Left Wanting More

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Whether it's an earnings beat or miss, the Dow stocks haven't performed as Wall Street expected, and the market stall on Friday suggested investors aren't being swayed by earnings as much as economic uncertainty.

On Friday morning, Caterpillar (CAT - Get Report) disappointed while General Electric (GE - Get Report) exceeded the Wall Street consensus.

Many of the notable Dow earnings have been in the winners column, with Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report), McDonald's (MCD - Get Report) and Verizon (VZ - Get Report) joining GE.

Yet a beat didn't always translate into a lift from investors, with Verizon off by 3% on Friday and GE trading close to flat as the markets stalled.

Is the lack of clarity in the Dow earnings signaling something fundamental about the state of the economic recovery? Is the lack of on-the-mark consensus calls from Wall Street a sign that the Dow is as confusing to Wall Street as the market is to investors right now?

Doug Kass, columnist for TheStreet sister site RealMoney Silver, noted that if earnings have been great, it can be attributed to low taxes, low borrowing costs and expense cuts. Kass wonders if these earnings drivers can be the basis of a sustainable recovery or one that adds to the productive capacity of the economy.

For Anthony Conroy, head of trading at ConvergEx, the market reaction to earnings season reflects lofty expectations and lingering uncertainty. However, a miss like the Caterpillar earnings was a company-specific event and not a sign of a Dow that is itself unstable.

Wayne Kaufman, chief market strategist at John Thomas Financial noted that earnings season has, in fact, been nothing short of great so far. In the S&P 500, 75% of the companies to report so far have beaten expectations. Kaufman said that streak may come down to the high-60s percentile once all the companies have reported, but it's still a positive earnings story. Only 12% of S&P companies have missed to date. He also noted that more than half of the S&P profits are overseas and that's a sustainable earnings story even if the U.S. economy slows.

The lack of consistency in Wall Street earnings calls for Dow stocks, too, is not a trend that's suddenly surfaced, but a reflection of how global the markets have become. For a financial stock, for example, Wall Street has to be able pinpoint the impact of lending rates across the globe to develop an earnings model, and it's been a harder job over the past five years for analysts.

John Thomas' Kaufman said that analysts are typically behind in both up and down markets, and that has only increased as the markets have become more global. It explains the outperformance of Dow and S&P stocks early in earnings season, and it tells him that there is more upside to come in the markets before the bull run ends.

If there were any one theme that tied together the Dow mixed bag and the market performance, it's that expectations from investors may have been a little lofty.

"Investors don't like the uncertainty, and you can't just make the numbers now, you have to beat. There's not a whole lot of clarity. It's sort of crazy," Conroy said.

Investors are also rotating out of sectors where they have booked solid gains due to doubts about the economic strength of the recovery, yet Conroy noted that there are earnings standouts even in sectors like technology, where investors are getting skittish. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD - Get Report) was up 16% on Friday after its earnings report.

In the Dow, Kaufman said Caterpillar is a point of concern, but the surprises to the upside in Dow have been as notable, with Microsoft outperforming by 20%, Intel outperforming by 15%, and the financials including JPMorgan and American express outperforming expectations by 9% and 5%, respectively.

Nevertheless, investors can't take comfort in the winning streak of many Dow stocks with Caterpillar short of the mark, Kaufman says, because it has been Caterpillar's industrial sweet spot, along with energy and materials, that have been the bull market leaders. He said other than Apple, the real run has been in the industrial names. "We've had a bull market for over two years now and people are very sensitive to any sign that the bull market has ended," Kaufman said. Kaufman said he did expect more from Caterpillar, but its miss of a few cents was offset by raised guidance, and in the end, "people, including myself, probably just expected too much. It was a disappointment for hot money players like me," Kaufman said.

Heiko Ihle, who covers Caterpillar for Gabelli Securities, noted that Caterpillar revenue increased year over year by 37%, and while the market seemed focused on comments from Caterpillar about a softening in China, Caterpillar's Asia-Pacific business increased by 41% year over year in the second quarter.

"In absolute terms, those are huge numbers. How can something that grows 37% be terrible?" he said. Yet the trading action reflects the run that Caterpillar had been on in the past six months, up 13%, and the fact that investors expected more. John Thomas Financial's Kaufman noted that Caterpillar seemed to settle into its 50-day moving average after the Friday decline.

The Gabelli analyst Ihle said there are reasons to be disappointed in Caterpillar specifically. For one, its raised guidance is offset by the one-time separation charges related to its Bucyrus acquisition. The larger Bucyrus issue is investor disappointment with the pace of accretion from that deal.

Caterpillar has always maintained that the deal would be accretive in its first full year, but only by a little. Investors seemed to think Caterpillar was being overly conservative, but its new commentary indicates that the deal will be only slightly accretive next year. "When earnings aren't quite as good as people want them to be, people run for the hills, but we are still in a growth cycle," Ihle said.
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