Next week is the last before the presidential election on Nov. 2, and barring some unforeseen October surprise, the outlook for stocks is as cloudy as the race.
Unlike normal election years, when traders usually bet on the incumbent, the current market is constrained by indecision that is exacerbated by the impact of record-high oil prices.
In the just-completed week, the
seesawed inversely with crude. In the end, it closed down 1.1% for week, extending a three-week losing streak, with crude oil trading back above $55 a barrel on Friday. The
was also down for the third consecutive week, by 1.8%, while the
Barry Hyman, equity market strategist with Ehrenkrantz King Nussbaum, sees little reason to expect anything different in the coming week.
"The markets' trading behavior this week will carry into next," Hyman said. "It's been very difficult for Wall Street professionals to get ahead and position themselves for a postelection market. As we sit here today, the outcome is still undecided. Anyone who takes a bet on either side is purely guessing. We should see some consolidation and volatility next week, but not a decisive move either way."
The polls show President Bush running in a dead heat with his opponent, Sen. John Kerry, and a slew of battleground states throughout the nation are up for grabs. Meanwhile, the earnings season has had a bearish tone. With just over half the S&P 500 having reported, Thomson First Call reports that year-over-year growth is set to cool to 15.2% for the quarter, down from 25.3% in the second quarter.
"Earnings are beginning to decelerate," said Larry Wachtel, senior market analyst with Wachovia Securities. "They're still decent earnings, but they're decelerating as we all expected. The season overall has been OK, but no cigar in terms of providing any guidance for the market."
Earnings scheduled for release next week include some blue-chip, industrial names that could provide some insight on how oil and other high commodity prices are affecting commerce.
Monday will kick things off with a report from
, which is expected to report earnings of 79 cents a share, up from 60 cents in the same quarter last year. Many investors are bracing for gas prices to put a dent in the truck rental company, but transportation stocks as a whole have held up well lately, with the exception of airlines.
will report after it lowered expectations in the beginning of the month, citing consumer resistance to big price hikes in Las Vegas. The stock has stumbled 22% in October, triggering the latest round of fears that there is a housing bubble likely to burst.
Housing data also are on tap, with the National Association of Realtors reporting existing-home sales in September on Monday and the Census Bureau reporting new-home sales Wednesday.
will report, with expected earnings of 24 cents a share, up from last year's 11 cents a share. Despite the growth, the chemical giant's CFO, Gary Pfeiffer, said in September that he expects an economic slowdown in 2005, due in part to higher energy costs.
On the consumer front, the Conference Board will release the October results of its consumer confidence index at 10 a.m. EDT Tuesday. Economists on Wall Street will be looking for the index to continue its two-month slide to 94.5, from 96.8 in September.
Consumers will remain in focus Wednesday, with earnings from
Procter & Gamble
, expected to hit 72 cents a share, up from 63 cents a share in the same quarter last year. Reports also are expected from
Sirius Satellite Radio
That afternoon, the
will release its so-called beige book report on the economy, providing a detailed view of conditions throughout the U.S. Investors will be looking for hints about what action the Fed may take at its next meeting on Nov. 10.
Thursday will feature earnings releases from
Martha Stewart Living
Then, the final verdict on economic growth under President Bush will arrive Friday morning, with the government expected to report GDP growth for the third quarter of 4.1%, which would be up from 3.3% in the second quarter. That will be followed by a revision to the October reading of the University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index, which is expected to inch up to 88 from the previously reported 87.5. Such a reading still would represent a sizable drop from the 94 logged in September.
Also Friday, the Chicago purchasing managers index is expected to dip to 59 from 61.3.
Wachtel said an uptick in GDP would be encouraging, but he believes the report will do little to spur enthusiasm about economic growth in the future.
"Everybody is basically kind of cautious," Wachtel said. "Business people are not hiring aggressively. They're not spending aggressively. The consumer has got to be influenced by the high oil prices. I think the price of oil remains the day-to-day dreadnought."
Hyman said that everything throughout the week will be viewed against a backdrop of high energy prices that threaten to start weakening corporate earnings.
"These prices are going to affect retail sales and consumer spending, and regardless of whatever Alan Greenspan says, this worries investors and it worries me," Hyman said. "Not only is crude oil going higher, you have natural gas exploding and heating oil is on a tear. These are numbers that will be dramatic to the average spender, because this is what the winter season is all about. It's about natural gas and heating oil."