Investors turn dubious about earnings

Monday, April 1, 2002

NEW YORK -- Over the past few months, Wall Street has waited for first-quarter earnings, anticipating that the numbers would confirm whether a business turnaround is indeed under way. But judging from the stock market's behavior of late, it is clear that investors have lowered their expectations considerably.

Light trading volume, fizzled rallies and flat market indicators are all signs that investors have shifted from optimism about the economy to concerns that it might take yet another three months before earnings really recover from the recession.

Although there hasn't been a rush of corporate warnings, investors are still approaching the release of earnings, which begins in earnest next week, with a degree of dread.

"There should be some increasing confidence that profits will be there, but so far the market hasn't made much progress," said Ronald J. Hill, investment strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.

Indeed, there's been a series of positive economic reports recently, including a jump in consumer confidence, rising sales of new homes and an upward revision in fourth-quarter gross domestic product.

"The evidence is continuing to accrue to say that the economy is not going to slip into recession and that it is onward and upward for economic growth," Hill said.

Hill also noted that fewer companies have issued earning warnings for the first quarter than they did for the third and fourth quarters.

Still, the stock market's broader indicators are below or little changed from where they started the year. The Nasdaq composite index is down 5.4 percent so far for 2002, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index is less than a point below where it started the year.

Even the Dow industrials, up 3.8 percent for the year and having made a yearly high of 10,635.25 on March 19, have retreated. Considered a safety net for investors during an uncertain economy, the blue chips have fallen 231.31 points, or 2.2 percent from their 2002 high.

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