Commentary

How to tell if we are in recession

Investors will need to pay attention to earnings reports from News Corp., Disney and Time Warner to find out just how bad the economy is.

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By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

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Shares of three big media titans have been hit hard in the past few months on recession fears.
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Even with all the economic turmoil going on, CareerBuilder.com still has a lot of jobs to offer.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Are we heading into a recession? Wall Street may have a better idea after three big media companies report quarterly results this week.

News Corp (NWS, Fortune 500)., Walt Disney (DIS, Fortune 500) and my parent company, Time Warner (TWX, Fortune 500) rely heavily on consumer spending and advertising. So if these firms are starting to see signs that consumers and large corporations are pulling back, that will not be encouraging news for the markets, which rebounded a bit last week thanks to the Fed's rate cut and excitement about Microsoft's (MSFT, Fortune 500) takeover bid for Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500).

Unfortunately, the news coming out of these companies may not be all that rosy.

News Corp., which owns the Fox television network, recently increased its reliance on advertising even more with its $5 billion purchase of Dow Jones. Rupert Murdoch's company will report its results after the closing bell Monday.

Disney owns the ABC network as well as cable channel ESPN. And it has arguably the biggest exposure to discretionary consumer spending through its theme-park business. The House of Mouse's numbers come out Tuesday afternoon.

And then there's Time Warner. In addition to CNNMoney.com, the company owns a large magazine publishing business, cable networks, AOL and cable operator Time Warner Cable (TWC). Cable companies like Time Warner Cable and rival Comcast (CMCSA) have been plagued by concerns that the subprime mortgage crisis could lead to slower subscriber growth this year. Time Warner reports its results Wednesday morning.

Wall Street is clearly worried. Shares of the three companies have each plunged more than 10% in the past six months on fears of an economic slowdown.

Last week, Citigroup analyst Jason Bazinet downgraded Disney to a "sell," citing concerns that the company's theme-park division will see lower demand this year and will be coupled with a "broader ad slowdown."

Advertising spending should get a lift from the presidential election and Olympics this year. But there are growing concerns that this boost may not be enough to counter weak consumer spending trends. Simply put, if consumers tighten their belts, big advertisers will soon follow.

So it will be critical to see if Murdoch, Disney CEO Bob Iger and new Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes are upbeat during their quarterly calls or if they have reason to be cautious. If it's the latter, then this newfound sense of optimism on Wall Street that we started to see last week may be short lived.

How about them Giants? Perk up, investors: The New York Giants, an old NFL team, pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history by beating the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl. And according to the old Super Bowl indicator, any time an old NFL team wins the big game, the markets should go up.

Now of course, this is really a silly statistical phenomenon that nobody should rely on to make investing decisions. But still....if the market does wind up rallying for the remainder of the year, this Giants fan will certainly thank Eli Manning, Michael Strahan and David Tyree (David Tyree?!?) for helping to get Wall Street back on track. Wow.

What do you think? Is the economy definitely headed into recession?  To top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.