NEW YORK (
-- It's been a long while since the market has fixated on a decision by the Federal Open Market Committee like it is on the culmination of the central bank's latest two-day meeting on Wednesday.
Not that any decision is expected, of course. Virtually no one believes the committee will raise rates or suddenly curtail QE2 tomorrow afternoon. What Wall Street is looking for though is any hint of when interest rates could be raised, and some indication of how Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke plans to wind down the government's $600 billion bond-buying binge.
The other cause for anticipation is the historic first-ever press conference that Bernanke has set up in the wake of the meeting. The chairman is looking to increase transparency but he may end up on the hot seat.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke
Questions abound. Will this be a staged event with Bernanke giving carefully worded responses that don't really answer anything? Or will reporters be able to ask the tough questions that Congress is reluctant to voice or doesn't have the knowledge to ask? Either way, it is ground breaking and about time.
Inflation is a sore spot for the Fed. Monetary policy makers are coming under increased criticism for their focus on core inflation, which exclude energy and food prices. With
, the frustration with this method is palpable.
The Fed's rhetoric has gone from worry about deflation to temporary inflation to no concerns about long-term inflation. All the while as the central bank tweaks its language, consumers are pinching pennies.
Rising gas prices will be prominent in Wednesday's headlines with
reporting before the opening bell. The current average estimate of analysts polled by
is for earnings of $1.97 a share in the March period on revenue of $61.72 billion.
With crude oil pushing past $100 a barrel, it doesn't take a genius to see these oil companies are going to make big bucks. Conoco's stock is up more than 40% in the past year but
sees more upside ahead. The firm has a 12-month price target of $93 on the stock, implying potential appreciation of 16% from current levels.
Another place the Fed can look for signs of inflation will be in the results from
Restaurant operator Brinker reports its fiscal third-quarter results before the market opens and Wall Street is expecting a profit of 45 cents a share for the three months ended in March on revenue of $711.5 million.
The company has seen sales at its flagship Chili's locations lag after it became less promotional. Profits though have been pretty good because of lower overhead costs and stronger margins. Investors will want to know if the company can continue to pass on increased costs to the consumer and whether it plans on more international expansion. The stock is up nearly 25% in the past year, hitting a high of $25.84 earlier this month, so the penalty for disappointing Wall Street could be severe.
Meanwhile Starbucks has had to suffer in the past with higher coffee costs, a painful divorce from
and seeing Kuerig take market share.
Now things appear to be looking up. Kraft is gone, Keurig is a partner and Starbucks has locked in its 2011 coffee costs. The stock is up 35% so far in 2011 and while it's increased the price of bagged coffee and labor-intensive drinks, consumers haven't cut back on trips to Starbucks. All this can change though and Starbucks is extending itself by looking to the Chinese market for growth. This quarter has the chance of disappointing the market.
Finally, another measure of consumer sensitivity to pricing will be
results, especially its Paypal business. Investors will be zeroed in on these dynamics, more so than how many sales are happening at the auction site. User growth had already been slowing, but economists may want to check out the take rates and see if eBay is getting more or less money for services.
Judging by the Dow's
, Wall Street is feeling pretty good ahead of Bernanke's appearance; although
disappointed and sent the stock lower in
, so tomorrow's open could be rough.
Looking ahead to Thursday, Wall Street gets results from Dow components
Written by Debra Borchardt in New York
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