Dow edges up but stocks waver in final hour of trade as investors weigh earnings reports, await big tech results

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U.S. stocks traded mixed in the final hour of trade Tuesday as investors weighed the latest batch of company earnings which reflected downbeat outlooks that could possibly foretell a coming recession.

How stocks are trading

  • The S&P 500 dipped 2 points, or less than 0.1%, to 4,017
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 111 points, or 0.3%, to 33,737
  • The Nasdaq Composite dropped 28 points, or 0.3%, to 11,335

On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 254 points, or 0.76%, to 33,630, the S&P 500 increased 47 points, or 1.19%, to 4,020, and the Nasdaq Composite gained 224 points, or 2.01%, to 11,364. The Nasdaq is up 8.6% for the year but remains down 29.2% from its November 2021 record high.

What’s driving markets

Wall Street investors are struggling to build on two days of gains in the thick of the earnings reporting season. With the tech sector under pressure, Microsoft and Texas Instruments report after market close on Tuesday.

Brad Conger, deputy chief investment officer of Hirtle Callaghan & Co, said he would be nervous or cautious on earnings outlooks as technology companies such as Microsoft and Alphabet laid off scores of workers amid a sector-wide downturn, but these companies will have to do more to make a meaningful effect on their cost base, Conger said.

“It tells you that they saw a market slowdown in their business and that tells me that there’s some weakness in sales growth. But to the cuts they made as a percentage of their employees are quite small, so it tells me that they saw something that was bad enough to justify an immediate reaction in headcount,” Conger told MarketWatch via phone.

Shares of 3M dropped 5.4% after a miss on earnings per share and guidance that did not meet analyst expectations. The Post-it notes maker said it is also planning to cut 2,500 jobs from its global manufacturing roles.

Johnson & Johnson shares were nearly flat after the drug company reported earnings that beat profit estimates but missed revenue forecasts and full-year earnings outlook above estimates. 

“The test of the market is this week and next week,” said Quincy Krosby, LPL Financial’s chief global strategist. The tone of forward guidance is a key part, she said. “Is guidance going to be overwhelmingly negative? Or perhaps neutral? The market is focused on this.” If she had to give an interim grade, it’s a pass, not a letter grade. “It’s not failing, because we saw the market gain.”

Shares of dozens of companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) were halted briefly after the opening bell due to a technical issue on Tuesday. Affected stocks included Verizon Nike McDonald’s AT&T and Morgan Stanley The NYSE said it was still investigating into the issue.

The S&P 500 index is up 3.1% over the last two sessions, taking its gain for the year so far to 4.7%, as investors show conviction the Federal Reserve is going to further slow its pace of interest rate rises amid easing inflation and weakening economic indicators. The hope among investors is that a less hawkish Fed will help the U.S. economy avoid a hard landing and this will support company earnings. However, they are also concerned that a hard-landing recession is still coming, that’s why fourth-quarter earnings and forward guidance are a way to read the tea leaves on what could be ahead.

“Hold onto your hats as this week’s ride could be on the wild side. And judging by the wave of New Year optimism that markets seemed to have been surfing pretty happily, investors are ready to believe in soft landings,” said Danni Hewson, AJ Bell financial analyst. “The question at hand is what kind of cushioning do some of the world’s biggest companies have wrapped around them in case things end with more of a jolt?”

U.S. economic updates on Tuesday included the “flash” S&P U.S. manufacturing and services PMIs for January. The manufacturing PMI climbed to 46.7 from 46.2, a 31-month low. The services PMI rose to 46.6 from 44.7. While both numbers are increasing month-to-month, any read below 50 points to a shrinking economy.

“The economy still might dodge a recession,” said Bill Adams, Chief Economist for Comerica Bank in Dallas, Texas. “The first half of the winter has passed without energy shortages, China’s economy is reopening and set to accelerate, and mortgage rates have pulled back a bit from their peaks last fall. But the many financial and economic indicators economists use to forecast business cycle turning points suggest that a recession is more likely near-term.”

Companies in focus

  • Shares of Alphabet declined 1.6% Tuesday after the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, alleging its dominant digital-advertising business constitutes a monopoly.
  • Verizon stock was essentially flat after fourth-quarter earnings matched earnings per share expectations at $1.19 and beat revenue expectations, bringing in $35.3 billion, but the full-year earnings outlook for the telecoms giant did not meet analyst expectations.
  • Lockheed Martin shares were up nearly 2% after the defense company posted both earnings and revenue that topped forecasts.
  • General Electric Co. shares were basically flat after a downbeat earnings outlook, even with profit, revenue and free cash flow numbers that exceeded analyst expectations. The industrial conglomerate was anticipating continuing earnings per share in 2023 of around $1.60 to $2.00. That’s below the FactSet consensus of $2.37. 

—Jamie Chisholm contributed to this article.

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