Earnings Jitters Weigh on Stocks

Futures edge lower as traders also prep for Friday's jobs report.
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Stocks drifted lower early Wednesday as traders regrouped after two volatile sessions and looked ahead to Friday's employment report and the onset of first-quarter earnings season.

Index futures recently showed both the

S&P 500

and Nasdaq 100 trading a point below fair value. The 10-year Treasury bond was up 4/32 in price to yield 4.85%, while the dollar was flat against the yen and euro.

Oil was steady after falling 51 cents a barrel on Tuesday. A report due Wednesday from the Energy Department is expected to show that U.S. crude inventories rose by 1.1 million barrels last week, while inventories of both gasoline and distillates fell by 1.6 million barrels. Recently, May crude was up 12 cents at $66.35 a barrel.

Overseas markets were little changed, with London's FTSE 100 recently falling 0.1% to 6000 and Germany's Xetra DAX flat at 6013. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei lost 0.3% overnight to 17,244, while Hong Kong's market was closed.

On Tuesday, strength in industrial stocks and benign commentary from

Federal Reserve

members sent the

Dow Jones Industrial Average

up 0.5% to 11,204.

Caterpillar

(CAT) - Get Report

paced the run with a 2.5% gain.

Wednesday's economic calendar is light, with the Institute for Supply Management's non-manufacturing survey the most significant report, due out at 10 a.m. Traders already have their eyes on Friday's jobs number, which is expected to show U.S. nonfarm payrolls rose by 190,000 last month, down from 243,000 in February.

Also drawing near is the first-quarter earnings season, starting next week with numbers from

Alcoa

(AA) - Get Report

. Overall, analysts at Thomson First Call are looking for corporate profits to rise by roughly 10% from a year ago, up from the fourth quarter's 9.2% growth rate.

Two medical companies previewed quarters on Tuesday. Pharmaceuticals giant

Merck

(MRK) - Get Report

put pre-charge earnings at 71 cents to 75 cents for the period, well above the 64-cent Wall Street consensus, while

St. Jude

(STJ)

said it will struggle to match analysts' estimate of 39 cents a share in the quarter. Its shares fell 8% after hours.

To view David Peltier's video take on today's premarket action, click here

.

Disk drive maker

Maxtor

(MXO)

also fell after pegging first-quarter sales at $875 million to $885 million, below the $965 million consensus. Maxtor estimated its loss for the quarter at 39 cents or 40 cents a share, wider than feared.

Early Wednesday,

Autodesk

(ADSK) - Get Report

estimated its first-quarter operating profit at 30 cents to 32 cents a share on sales of $425 million to $435 million. Analysts were expecting 31 cents a share and $431 million.

Away from earnings, pilots at

Delta

(DALRQ)

voted to authorize a strike Tuesday if the airline scraps an existing contract. A job action at the bankrupt carrier could ground planes and, some analysts believe, lead to its demise.

Another bankrupt company,

Calpine

(CPNLQ)

, set plans late Tuesday to sell 20 plants and cut 775 jobs. The power generator currently operates about 90 plants and employs 2,900 people.

Great Atlantic & Pacific

(GAP)

surged after the bell Tuesday after the company said it will pay a special dividend of $7.25 a share on April 25. A&P cited improved operating results and the proceeds from a recent asset sale.