Updated from 7:53 p.m. ET to include information about after-hours action involving Transocean and Juniper Networks. NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It's safe to say the Federal Reserve didn't exactly wow Wall Street as the dust clears from its first meeting of 2012. Whether the central bank's pledge to keep rates low "at least through late 2014" turns out to be a huge mistake or not remains to be seen, but based upon the halfhearted rally that followed the news and Thursday's poor showing, traders have found some downside in the Fed's decision to open up so completely. Either that or traders were really counting on an early dose of quantitative easing. UBS was generally positive in its assessment of the news but the firm did point some of the risks as well. "
The FOMC's statement inches the Fed closer to QE3 and certainly delays any move toward an exit strategy," UBS wrote in commentary early Thursday. "However, we think the Fed runs the risk of being whipsawed by both unemployment falling faster than they expect and inflation reaccelerating sooner (albeit only to near their long-run target)." The firm also notes that succession could be an issue with Ben Bernanke's term set to expire in January 2014, as in well before late 2014. TrimTabs, meantime, is taking issue with Bernanke's claim that the U.S. won't be bailing Europe out of its sovereign debt crisis. The research firm says the European Central Bank's repeated knocking on the Fed's liquidity swaps window is evidence to the contrary. The firm notes that, after drawing down another $11 billion in the week ended Jan. 19, the ECB's tab with the Fed is up to $103.3 billion. "To put this amount into perspective, total swaps are now one-sixth the size of the Fed's 2010/2011 $600 billion QE2 program," TrimTabs said. "While Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke stated that the Fed has no intention to bail out Europe, the Fed's aggressive expansion of the Fed's balance sheet, up nearly 4%, or $106 billion, since early December, suggests otherwise. We view these actions as nothing more than a back door bailout of Eurozone banks." The firm estimates the ECB's balance sheet jumped 36% -- $947 billion -- in 2011 to a record of $3.5 trillion. That increase reflects the $638 billion in low-interest loans that eurozone banks have received from the ECB in the long-term refinancing operation in December that's been credited with bringing some stability to the region. TrimTabs also doesn't believe either party is going to tap the brakes any time soon.
"We expect the ECB and the Fed to keep expanding their balance sheets aggressively," the firm said. "With short-term interest rates near zero, central banks have few tools left except printing money to try to reflate economies burdened with three decades of government policies that expanded government and social welfare programs far in excess of government revenues." Depending on your investment horizon, that could be good news or it could be bad. Regardless of whether the Fed is on the right track, retail investors are feeling positively ebullient about stocks these days, which is usually a contrary indicator. The latest weekly sentiment survey conducted by the American Association of Individual Investors found that 48.4% of respondents are bullish about stocks over the next six months. That compares to a mere 18.9% who are bearish and 32.7% who are neutral. The bull camp swelled by 1.2 percentage points in the past week, while the bears saw a decline of 4.7 percentage points. The long-term averages sit at 39% for bullish, 31% for neutral, and 30% for bearish, so it's clear the situation has gotten just a little bit extreme. After all, it's not like the unemployment rate has 9% in its rearview mirror, or earnings this quarter, sans Apple ( AAPL), are terribly impressive. There's a reason that gold is back above $1700 an ounce. As for Friday, the economic data may carry the day with the first read on gross domestic product for the fourth quarter due at 8:30 a.m. ET. The consensus estimate, according to Briefing.com, is for growth of 3.2% vs. the 1.8% boost seen in the third quarter. Capital Economics is well below consensus at 2.4%, saying it sees "a fairly hefty decline" in federal spending on the military, while Macroeconomic Advisers is at 3.1%. Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, sees some downside risk to the GDP number because of cuts to defense spending. He's expecting growth of 2.5%. "We expect 12%-plus annualized decline in real defense spending, enough on its own to subtract 0.8% from the headline GDP growth rate," he said. The warm weather in much of the U.S. in December could also be a factor, causing consumers to spend less on natural gas and electricity services, Shepherdson added. The other piece of data due tomorrow is the University of Michigan's final read on consumer sentiment for January at 9:55 a.m. ET. The index is expected to come in at a solid 74.2.
The earnings deluge is going to slow some but there's still an impressive amount of companies set to report. Ford Motor ( F) gets the spotlight treatment here. The company's stock has had a rough go of it over the past year, falling more than 30%, but based on Thursday's close at $12.79, it's bounced more than 40% since scraping a 52-week low of $9.05 on Oct. 4. The car and truck maker is reporting its fiscal fourth-quarter results before the opening bell, and Wall Street is looking for earnings of 25 cents a share in the December-ended period on revenue of $32.1 billion. Ford already telegraphed earlier this month that it's expecting a loss from its Asia-Pacific operations in the fourth quarter because of the floods in Thailand, so Wall Street will be expecting more color on progress in the region tomorrow. Future plans for returning more cash to shareholders will also be a topic after Ford reinstated its quarterly dividend on Dec. 8, declaring a payout of 5 cents a share. The company reported a 10% increase in unit sales in December. Wall Street is fairly bullish on Ford ahead of the report with 14 of the 20 analysts covering the stock at either strong buy (5) or buy (9) and the median 12-month price target sitting at $15. At current levels, Ford shares are trading at forward price-to-earnings multiple of 8.2X, a bit more expensive than rival General Motors ( GM) at 6.7X. Sterne Agee sees further appreciation ahead for Ford shares. The firm has a buy rating and an $18 price target on the stock, which is its top pick in the auto sector. "
We believe the company is well positioned to benefit from the continued recovery in North America; its European operations have been profitable in six of the last seven years, and in our view, it is more prepared than its competition to withstand the current industry uncertainty; and we expect excess cash largely to be used to reward shareholders," said Sterne Agee earlier this week, adding that it views the company as "the best way to play an industry recovery" among vehicle manufacturers.
The firm noted that Ford is expected to record a gain of nearly $15 billion in the fourth quarter related to the reversal of deferred tax assets, and to provide an update on its pension status. Sterne Agee is above consensus, forecasting earnings of 29 cents a share for the quarter. "We expect improved results from Ford's North American auto operations but lower results from all other regions, and look for the company to end the year with a positive net cash position of $10 billion at its auto operations," the firm said. Ford has beaten the analysts' earnings estimate in seven of the past eight quarters, and the stock has surged more than 20% since the start of the year so mediocre management commentary on 2012 will likely spur a swift sell-off. Check out TheStreet's quote page for Ford for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more. Friday also features reports from two Dow components, Chevron ( CVX) and Procter & Gamble ( PG). Chevron already took it on the chin with its warning about weak refining margins on Jan. 12, so P&G gets a quick rundown here. Shares of the Cincinnati-based consumer products giant finished 2011 with a modest 3.7% gain, but the stock has pulled back some since the start of the year. Based on Thursday's regular session close at $64.80, the shares have gained 1.3% over the past year and have a forward annual dividend yield of 3.3%. Wall Street is looking for a profit of $1.08 a share on revenue of $22.2 billion from P&G, whose brands include Duracell batteries, Gillette razors, and Head & Shoulders haircare products, in its fiscal second quarter. The buy side is still high on P&G with 17 of the 24 analysts covering the shares at either strong buy (7) or buy (10), and the median 12-month price target at $72.50. Expect the company to get pressed about its thinking now on the deal to sell its Pringles potato chip brand to Diamond Foods ( DMND), which is being probed by regulatory authorities about payments to walnut growers. P&G said in November that it expects the $2.35 billion deal to close this coming June but Diamond's troubles have prompted some speculation that the transaction could collapse.
Friday's earnings roster will be rounded out by A.O. Smith ( AOS), Altria ( MO), American Electric Power ( AEP), Arkansas Best ( ABFS), D.R. Horton ( DHI), Dominion Resources ( D), Honeywell International ( HON), IDEXX Laboratories ( IDXX), Immunogen ( IMGN), Legg Mason ( LM), LG Display Co. ( LPL), Newell Rubbermaid ( NWL), Oppenheimer Holdings ( OPY), and T. Rowe Price ( TROW). It will also be interesting to see if what Netflix ( NFLX) shares do next. The top performing S&P 500 stock of 2012 tacked on more than 20% on Thursday as analysts gushed about its better than expected performance in the fourth quarter. Citigroup even came through with an upgrade, going to buy from neutral and lifting its price target by nearly 63% to $130 from $80. The firm got back on the bandwagon in a big way, listing four "key signs of Recovery/Stabilization/Growth" in its report, which were as follows: "1) Q1 Guide for approx. 1.5-1.7MM Domestic Streaming Net Adds is consistent with Q2:11 pre-apocalypse Net Adds of 1.8MM - suggests NFLX's Streaming segment is back to growth; 2) Q4 Domestic Streaming Contribution Margin of 11% (vs. 8% est) and reaffirmed Guide for Margin expansion addresses some Streaming profitability concerns; 3) Q4 International Contribution Loss at low end of Guide range with peak Q1 loss of $110MMish suggests control over International investments; 4) Our Q4 Proprietary Survey work established at-least stabilization in NFLX customer satisfaction with nocompetitive erosion." That's a lot of positives to take out of one quarter, and Citigroup acknowledged that both Netflix's stock and its calls have been "highly volatile." But the firm still thinks the valuation looks reasonable and threw in a few potential positive catalysts for good measure. "One can buy NFLX at more than 20X P/E for its Domestic business and get a 'free' call option on its International segment," Citigroup said, adding later: "NFLX's execution track record - even with the H2:11 pricing and product mistakes - is relatively strong. And the Netflix Streaming story is still early days, given the relatively recent take-up of Tablets (15MM iPad sales...), SmartTVs, mobile broadband devices, with potential Facebook integration an interesting kicker." And finally, it was another busy after-hours session with Starbucks ( SBUX), Juniper Networks ( RVBD), and Transocean ( RIG) all attracting heavy trading interest. Despite beating the consensus view for its fiscal first quarter, Starbucks looks like it will see some downside come Friday after the coffee giant gave full-year outlook that's a bit short of the current consensus view. Margins ain't what they used to be. Juniper is lined up for a big pullback, falling 8% with more than 2 million shares changing hands in extended trades, after the networking equipment maker forecast revenue of $960 million to $990 million for the March-ended quarter, below Wall Street's estimate of $1.01 billion, saying the view reflects continued "near-term uncertainty" about customer demand. That's never a good sign. Transocean, though, got some good news. Its stock jumped after a federal judge ruled the company is shielded from paying out certain claims against it stemming from the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 because of its contract with BP plc ( BP). According to the Associated Press, the judge found that Transocean, the rig operator, shouldn't have to pay damage claims because it was indemnified by its contract with BP, the well owner. But the report added that U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said Transocean is still not exempt from paying punitive and civil penalties related to the spill. The stock was last quoted at $51.45, up 9.2%, on volume of more than 400,000, according to Nasdaq.com. -- Written by Michael Baron in New York. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Michael Baron.