President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in Tuesday and begin work on his pledge to bring change to America, but in the immediate days after his inauguration little is expected to be different for the U.S. stock market. Investors will enjoy a long weekend ahead of the inauguration, courtesy of the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday holiday, but they will be greeted upon their return by a flood of quarterly earnings reports. According to John Butters, research analyst with Thomson Reuters, earnings releases from more than 50 constituents of the S&P 500 will arrive in the next four trading sessions, setting the table for a frantic short week. "Everybody knows that last quarter's numbers were terrible. The only question will be whether companies are providing guidance or visibility for the new year," said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist with RDM Financial. "The best that investors can hope for is a trading range until there's greater visibility." Before the earnings torrent begins in full force, though, investors will be watching the inauguration of Obama and considering the $825 billion stimulus plan that Democrats from the House of Representatives have drafted. "The inauguration itself is really a big celebration for the new president. The more important event for the markets to watch is how quickly the stimulus plan passes," said Sheldon. "Most important is the stimulus package and whether Republicans and Democrats can get together quickly and settle their differences. I think both understand that we're in a crisis situation for the economy and financial markets, so there's a strong need to act quickly and effectively."
Republicans aren't completely excited about the new stimulus plan. Several have voiced concern over the size of the proposal, and most want more tax cuts rather than government spending in order to achieve a better balance between the two. "The stage has been set for a potential showdown between Democrats and Republicans as to what is the right mix for this stimulus plan," Sheldon said. "Despite the fact that Republicans are the minority, many continue to hold to their principles, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some significant debate in the coming days before the actual passage of the plan." Timothy Speiss, head of the personal wealth advisory group at Eisner LLP, argues that the market should respond positively to the inauguration of the new president. "As a matter of fact, I think it's the one thing that is going to be good news," he said. Earnings reports will take a back seat Tuesday to the inauguration, but several big name companies will still post results worth watching. In the morning, Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) and TD Ameritrade ( AMTD) are expected to report, and both CSX ( CSX) and tech giant IBM ( IBM), among others, are due to release their earnings after the closing bell. Wednesday's headliner will be Apple ( AAPL), due to report after the closing bell along with eBay ( EBAY) and Seagate Technology ( STX). Earlier Wednesday, UAL ( UAUA), United Technologies ( UTX) and Freeport-McMoRan ( FCX), among others, are all due to report quarterly results. Google ( GOOG) and Microsoft ( MSFT) will be the key earnings reports to watch Thursday, although a handful of other companies will be out with numbers, as well. Other names reporting Thursday include Nokia ( NOK), Southwest Airlines ( LUV), Potash ( POT) and UnitedHealth Group ( UNH).
Thursday will also bring the two lone economic releases for the week, the December read on housing starts and building permits, as well as weekly jobless claims data. "The economic data that we continue to see on a daily basis has been very, very negative. It doesn't appear that things are getting any better," Sheldon said. "If we start to see some stabilization in weekly jobless claims, that would be a positive for the market." Friday's earnings roster is considerably lighter, although General Electric's ( GE) report is sure to generate plenty of headlines. "Investors need to watch GE as they're obviously a bellwether, being both an industrial and a financial company," Speiss said. "I'm very curious about General Electric. It is very sensitive to interest rates and very sensitive to credit liquidity." As always, investors will keep an eye on the financial sector, which has continued to be a source of turmoil for the stock market. In the last week, investors were greeted with reports from JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), Citigroup ( C) and Bank of America ( BAC). Citigroup's report was especially alarming, as the struggling bank announced its fifth straight quarter of losses and provided details on a plan to split in two. Trading activity last week was also affected by the federal bailout of Bank of America, which has raised serious questions about the government's approach to stemming the financial crisis, as well as word Citigroup and Morgan Stanley ( MS) would combine their brokerage units. "Investors continue to be concerned over financial stocks, although it appears that we should experience a period of near-term stabilization in that group," said Sheldon. However, Speiss argues that investors in financials are still in for a wild ride. "I don't know if it's because the financial managers are not adept at accurate forecasting or if they don't know themselves, but to keep producing losses of this magnitude, it's just absolutely alarming," Speiss said. "You'd think everyone would've shown their cards by now, so the fact we see these huge losses still coming through gives hope that there can't be much left."