Updated from 5:55 p.m. ET to include after-hours action. NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Another round of quantitative easing from the Federal Reserve may not be off the table completely but the second-quarter timeframe that many market watchers were predicting at the start of the year doesn't seem realistic anymore. Paul Ashworth, an analyst at Capital Economics, broke down the situation in commentary on Wednesday, saying the economic data just isn't supportive of the central bank signing up for more bond buying when Operation Twist conks out at the end of June. "We wouldn't rule out a third round of asset purchases at some point, possibly focused on mortgage-backed securities, but an announcement at one of the next few FOMC meetings now looks quite unlikely," he wrote. "More quantitative easing is a harder sell when inflation remains above the Fed's 2% target and the unemployment rate continues to decline at a faster pace than the FOMC
Federal Open Market Committee or most other economists anticipated." Ashworth had a few predictions for next week's two-day FOMC meeting, saying officials are likely to make a "modest downward revision" to their year-end forecast for the unemployment rate because the current view for a range of 8.2-8.5% in the final quarter of 2012 may "look a little pessimistic" given the rate is already at 2%. Other than that, the central bank is engaged in a waiting game, the analyst said. "Overall, there is little reason for the FOMC to take a step in either direction at this meeting," he wrote. "The Fed's best option is to stay on the sidelines waiting to see which way the recovery breaks." All in all, Wednesday's weakness was pretty pedestrian but Spain's next auction of 10-year bonds on Thursday could bring the volatility back post-haste if it doesn't go well. Ed Yardeni, chief investment strategist at Yardeni Research, said Wednesday that the markets may soon be looking to the European Central Bank to step in that the impact of the eurozone's long-term refinancing operation, or LTRO, is starting to wane. "The ECB's LTRO, in effect, has been quantitative easing," Yardeni said. "However, rather than loading up on PIIGS Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain bonds directly, the ECB has provided cheap three-year money to PIIGS banks backed by their dodgy collateral and encouraged them to load up on the dodgy bonds of their governments. This 'Operation Twisted' did lower yields in Spain and Italy earlier this year. However, the ECB may have to do more if bond auctions don't go well for Spain and Italy because the banks have spent all their LTRO money on carry trades, while other bond investors remain on strike." One signal that the rally in U.S. stocks may be close to running its course, at least in the near-term, is that retail investors slowed outflows from mutual funds investing in U.S. equities last week, pulling out $1.53 billion for the week ended April 11, down from $4.5 billion the previous week. That's not the same as jumping in with both feet but it's worth noting. Conventional market wisdom is that Mom and Pop embracing stocks is a contrarian indicator.
As for Thursday's scheduled news, it's another big earnings day with numbers due from another five Dow components, Bank of America ( BAC), DuPont ( DD), Microsoft Corp. ( MSFT), Travelers Cos. ( TRV), and Verizon Communications ( VZ). Microsoft gets the spotlight treatment here. The average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for earnings of 57 cents a share from the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant in its fiscal third quarter ended in March on revenue of $17.18 billion. After losing 7% in 2011, shares of Bill Gates' behemoth have outperformed the broad market this year, rising nearly 20% and hitting a 52-week high of $32.95 on March 16, mostly on enthusiasm about the highly anticipated release of Windows 8 later this year. The stock has since pulled back ahead of earnings though, finishing Wednesday's regular session at $31.14, below the 50-day moving average of $31.86. Microsoft is historically a solid earnings performer, beating the consensus view in the past eight quarters with an average upside surprise of 9.5%. At current levels, the stock's forward price-to-earnings multiple is 10.3X, so it's still trading at a discount to the broad market, despite expectations for year-over-year growth of 4.5% on the top line. The forward annual dividend yield on the stock is a respectable 2.6%. The sell side is mostly bullish with 23 of the 35 analysts covering the shares at either strong buy (12) or buy (11), and the 12-month median price target sits at $34.50, implying X% upside potential from here. Think Equity is one of the bears with a hold rating and a $31 price target ahead of the report, and it sees some cause for trepidation as the company moves outside its traditional strength in personal computers into smartphones and tablets. "While we are optimistic regarding the unit growth prospects of the upcoming Windows 8 release support ARM ( ARM Holdings ( ARMH)) architecture, we are wary of the pricing pressure it could face given the lower pricing points of non-PC devices," the firm writes. "We do not believe the current positive investor sentiment regarding the Windows 8 release has fully accounted for a potential negative pricing headwind. We believe shares are fairly valued at 10X our CY12
calendar 2012 earnings estimate." Check out TheStreet's quote page for Microsoft for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more. Bank of America will be the most closely watched report ahead of the opening bell. It's been a mixed bag for the big banks after reporting their quarterly results as JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) and Wells Fargo ( WFC) stalled following their reports, but Citigroup ( C) caught a bid. Wall Street is looking for earnings of 12 cents a share on revenue of $22.51 billion from Bank of America, which could be judged harshly on any misstep because of how mightily the stock has rallied this year, rising 60% as the biggest percentage gainer in the Dow in 2012.
Other high-profile names opening their books include Morgan Stanley ( MS) and Chipotle Mexican Grill ( CMG). Chipotle shares have continued to fly high in 2012, tacking on 28% since the calendar turned and reaching a new 52-week peak of $442.40 on April 13. The stock is expensive with a forward P/E ratio of 40.2X vs. 19.3X for Yum! Brands ( YUM). The average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is calling for Chipotle to earn $1.93 a share in the first quarter on revenue of $631.1 million, up from a year-ago equivalent profit of $1.44 a share on revenue of $509.4 million, and earnings of $1.90 a share on revenue of $591.9 million in the fourth quarter. Still, the company has come in shy of Wall Street's consensus profit view in two of the past three quarters as it deals with higher commodity costs. Chipotle also continues to expand at a healthy clip, targeting 155-165 new restaurant openings in 2012, which would represent growth of 12.6-13.4% off its total of 1230 locations at year-end. Seventeen of the 28 analysts covering Chipotle shares are in the bear camp, split between hold (13), underperform (3) and sell (1), and the stock already trades above the sell side's median 12-month price target of $432. Deutsche Bank is bullish with a buy rating and a $500 price target but the firm sees another miss this quarter, forecasting earnings of $1.88 a share. "We are modeling Q1 comps of 10.5%, which may prove conservative even though prior year comparisons are becoming more challenging," Deutsche Bank said. "Our comp assumption is in line with the Street consensus but we have modeled higher operational costs. Upside to our earnings estimate exists if CMG can report stronger than anticipated same-store sales, leveraging fixed costs." The firm also ran down its hope for the conference call, saying it would like to get updates on management's efforts to improve productivity and the outlook for food inflation. Other questions include what the impact of this winter's favorable weather has had on sales and is the initial performance of Chipotle's ShopHouse Asian Kitchen concept sustainable?
Check out TheStreet's quote page for Chipotle Mexican Grill for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more. Other morning reporters include Alaska Air Group ( ALK), Arbitron ( ARB), Baxter International ( BAX), BB&T Corp. ( BBT), Blackstone Group ( BX), Boston Scientific ( BSX), Cypress Semiconductor ( CY), Danaher ( DHR), EMC Corp., Fairchild Semiconductor ( FCS), Fifth Third Bancorp ( FITB), First Niagara Financial ( FNFG), Freeport-McMoran Copper ( FCX), Genuine Parts ( GPC), KeyCorp ( KEY), Life Time Fitness ( LTM), New York Times ( NYT), Nokia ( NOK), Patriot Coal ( PCX), Philip Morris International ( PM), Rockwell Collins ( COL), Sherwin-Williams ( SHW), Snap-On ( SNA), Southwest Airlines ( LUV), Travelzoo ( TZOO), Union Pacific ( UNP), and United Health ( UNH). The late roster features Advanced Micro Devices ( AMD), Altera ( ALTR), Capital One Financial ( COF), Chubb ( CB), E*Trade Financial ( ETFC), Freescale Semiconductor ( FSL), Hanesbrands ( HBI), Rambus ( RMBS), Riverbed Technology ( RVBD), SanDisk Corp. ( SNDK), Tempur-Pedic International ( TPX), and Wynn Resorts ( WYNN). Thursday's economic calendar features weekly initial and continuing jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. ET; existing home sales for March at 10 a.m. ET; the Philadelphia Fed regional manufacturing index for April at 10 a.m. ET; and leading indicators for March at 10 a.m. ET. And finally, it was another busy after-hours session on Wednesday with Qualcomm ( QCOM) taking a hit after offering up a disappointing guidance; eBay ( EBAY) engineering a rally as it easily beat Wall Street's expectations for its latest quarter with PayPal continuing to gain traction; and F5 Networks ( FFIV) feeling the love after it topped the consensus view on both the top and bottom lines. -- Written by Michael Baron in New York. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Michael Baron.