A loaded calendar for economic data next week will likely play second fiddle to an even heavier load of corporate earnings. Roughly a third of the S&P 500 reported results last week, and another third is scheduled for the week ahead, including Dow Jones Industrial Average components Verizon ( VZ), ExxonMobil ( XOM) and Procter & Gamble ( PG). The week is laden with economic data and news. Wednesday is the heaviest day, with an advance, or first, reading of gross domestic product in the morning and then a statement from the Federal Reserve's Federal Open Market Committee on interest rates in the afternoon. On Friday, the Institute of Supply Management unveils its April survey of purchasing managers. "We're going to have an action-packed week for economic data that is perhaps overshadowed by the earnings season," says Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Jefferies. By midday Friday, 177 S&P 500 components had reported earnings, with another 146 expected to post results by the end of next week, says Ashwani Kaul, director of research at Thomson Reuters. Thus far, the results have been encouraging: 62% of companies that had reported through the middle of Friday had beat analyst expectations, outpacing the 53% average over the past four or five quarters, he says. "It's probably the first time in several quarters that we've seen some stabilization with earnings," Kaul says. Technology stocks have performed well, and even the long-battered financial sector has held its own. Kaul said 16 of the 31 financials that have reported so far have beat expectations, including heavyweights like Bank of America ( BAC), Wells Fargo ( WFC) and JPMorgan Chase ( JPM).
Next week, electronic payment processors Visa ( V) and MasterCard ( MA) report Wednesday and Friday, respectively. Analysts are expecting robust profits of 64 cents a share for Visa and $2.61 a share for Mastercard, both of which would beat year-ago results. The expected rosy quarters from those two companies likely will be offset by results from battered life insurers like Hartford Financial Group ( HIG) and MetLife ( MET), both of which report Thursday. Financials may have received a boost on Friday, when the Treasury Department released details of its methodology for the bank stress tests it is wrapping up. Treasury will begin informing banks about how they did on Monday, but the department reassured investors on Friday that "most U.S. banking organizations currently have capital levels well in excess of the amounts required to be well capitalized." Other notable earnings reports next week include industrials like Corning ( GLW), U.S. Steel ( X) and Dow Chemical ( DOW); wireless handset maker Qualcomm ( QCOM); drugmakers Pfizer ( PFE) and Wyeth ( WYE); media giants Time Warner ( TWX) and Comcast ( CMCSA); and consumer plays Starbucks ( SBUX) and Kellogg ( K). Stocks just barely missed a sixth straight week of gains on the Dow on Friday, after a 119-point rally brought the average to 8076.29. But while upcoming earnings reports may anchor another strong week, market professionals are only cautiously optimistic. " I think the stock market is way ahead of the economy at this point," says Paul Nolte, director of investments at Hinsdale Associates. On the economic data front, some of the traditional anticipation of the Fed decision on Wednesday is muted, since the target federal funds rate is already at a range just above zero. But investors will comb the statement for clues on the central bank's outlook on the economy.
Economists are estimating first-quarter GDP fell 4.9%, after a 6.3% drop in the fourth quarter. If the improvement is better than expected, that could also provide fodder to the bulls. "We've changed from a rapidly contracting economy to a slowly contracting economy," Nolte says. "We're still contracting." In addition to those two heavyweight data points, the Conference Board is expected to report consumer confidence levels, and the S&P/Case-Schiller Home Price Index is expected to show another drop on Tuesday, followed Friday by the ISM report and the Commerce Department's numbers on car and truck sales. Investors also start the week by digesting what world financial leaders in the G7 and G20 do to address the downturn. They are meeting in Washington, D.C. over the weekend and issued a statement Friday reaffirming "our commitment to deliver the scale of sustained fiscal effort necessary to restore growth." In a separate statement, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner praised the world community's efforts thus far, but urged "critical" action on enacting "the necessary stimulus to domestic demand in each of our countries and stabilize our financial systems to ensure a sustained global recovery." Unlike the U.S., Europeans have been hesitant to embrace a large stimulus effort. Conversely, some of the European finance officials have expressed frustration with the slow pace in the U.S. of enacting new regulation of the financial system. "You can't do too much about
the current crisis ," says Petra Beck, economist, author of A Rescue Plan For President Obama: 7 Steps To A Win-Win Economy and a former employee of the German Central Bank. "That's why European countries don't want to put too much money in the stimulus plans, because you have to fix the system."