Earnings, economy - here comes 'terrible'

The week ahead: Investors gear up for a deluge of weak earnings and the biggest plunge in GDP in 26 years.

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Investors this week will face the largest batch of company report cards yet, in what is quickly shaping up to be the worst quarter for corporate profits in a decade.

The earnings avalanche will test the market's mettle. Last week, the Dow fought back after falling below the 8,000 point psychological benchmark for four days in a row. Analysts say if the Dow can hang on to this level in the weeks ahead, that's a good indication that a bottom has been set.

The biggest week for earnings brings reports from 137 S&P 500 companies and 12 Dow components. Standouts include Caterpillar, American Express, McDonald's, Yahoo, Wells Fargo and Exxon Mobil.

Only 10% of the 85 S&P 500 companies that have reported so far have topped forecasts. Another 60% have met estimates and another 30% have missed, according to Thomson Reuters.

"We're in the process of absorbing just how bad the fourth quarter was," said Bernard McGinn, CEO of McGinn Investment Management. "We had a feeling things were terrible, now we're getting proof of it. The question is 'where do we go now?"

This week also brings the latest Fed policy meeting - although it's likely to be less influential than usual since the central bankers are expected to keep interest rates unchanged near zero, said Kenny Landgraf, principal and founder at Kenjol Capital Management

Investors will also digest reports on housing, consumer confidence and leading economic indicators early in the week. The end of the week brings the fourth-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) report. It's expected to have fallen by an annual rate of 5.2%, it biggest plunge in 26 years.

"Everyone is bracing for the GDP number to be pretty terrible, but the bigger surprise could come with the housing numbers, which are also expected to be awful," he said.

Landgraf said that investors are also looking for more concrete news to come from the Obama administration this week regarding the use of the remaining $350 billion of the TARP money and negotiations on the $825 billion stimulus package.

Earnings hit hard: With 15% of the S&P 500 having already reported results, fourth-quarter profits are expected to have fallen 28.1% from a year ago, according to the latest figures from tracker Thomson Reuters.

Typically, the final number is lower than where it stands at this point in the quarter. But even if the final number is no worse than where it stands now, the fourth quarter will still rank as the biggest decline for S&P 500 profits in the 10 years Thomson has been tracking results.

Worse-than-expected reports from big financial companies such as Citigroup and Bank of America have weighed heavily on the results so far.

"It's not how many companies are missing," said John Butters, Thomson Reuters' senior research analyst. "It's the size of the companies missing and the magnitude of the losses."

Financials are currently expected to lose $12.5 billion this year as opposed to their profits of $5 billion a year ago. But financials aren't alone, with 7 of 10 S&P economic sectors due to post declines.

However, not all of the news has been bad. Last week Google, Apple and IBM reported earnings that were better than expected.

On the docket

Monday: December existing home sales are expected to have fallen to a 4.40 million unit annual rate from a 4.49 million unit rate in November.

The December index of leading economic indicators (LEI) is expected to have fallen 0.3% after falling 0.4% in November.

Tuesday: The January consumer confidence index from the Conference Board is expected to hold steady at an all-time low of 38.0, unchanged from December.

Also due Tuesday is the S&P/CaseShiller home index for November, expected to show steep declines.

Wednesday: The Federal Reserve concludes its two-day policy meeting with an announcement on interest rates due at around 2:15 p.m. ET. No change is expected in the fed funds rate: The central bank lowered interest rates to nearly zero in December and hinted it would keep them there for some time.

As always, the statement accompanying the decision will be critical, as it offers the Fed's assessment of the economy, now in its second year of a recession. (Full story)

Also on Wednesday, the World Economic Forum kicks off in Davos, Switzerland. It runs through Sunday.

Thursday: The December durable goods orders report is due before the start of trade. Orders are expected to have dropped 1.8% after dropping 1.5% in November.

December new home sales are due after the start of trading. Sales are expected to have fallen to a 400,000 annual unit rate from a 407,000 annual unit rate in November.

Friday: Fourth-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to have fallen by an annual rate of 5.2%, after falling by an annual rate of 0.5% in the third quarter. That would be the biggest quarterly decline in roughly 26 years.

The January Chicago PMI, a regional read on manufacturing, is expected to have fallen to 34.2 from 35.1 in December.

The University of Michigan releases its revised January consumer sentiment index, which is expected to hold steady at 61.9.

Earnings to watch

Monday: Before the start of trade, heavy-equipment maker Caterpillar (CAT, Fortune 500), a Dow component, is expected to report earnings of $1.31 per share versus $1.50 a year ago, according to a consensus of analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters.

Fellow Dow component McDonald's (MCD, Fortune 500) is expected to report earnings of 83 cents per share versus 73 cents a year ago.

After the market close, Dow component American Express (AXP, Fortune 500) is expected to report earnings of 22 cents per share versus 71 cents a year ago.

Also after the close, biotech Amgen (AMGN, Fortune 500) is expected to report a profit of $1.07 per share versus $1 a year ago.

Tuesday: Dow component DuPont (DD, Fortune 500) is set to report results before the start of trading. The chemical maker is expected to have lost 24 cents per share, after having earned 57 cents per share a year ago.

Verizon Communications (VZ, Fortune 500), also a Dow component, is expected to report earnings of 62 cents per share, the same as it did a year ago.

After the market close, Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) is expected to report earnings of 13 cents per share versus 15 cents a year ago.

Wednesday: AT&T (T, Fortune 500) reports results before the start of trade. The Dow component is expected to report earnings of 65 cents per share versus 71 cents a year ago.

Also in the morning, Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500) is expected to report earnings of 33 cents per share, versus 41 cents a year ago. Wells Fargo is perceived as having held up better than a number of other banks.

Thursday: 3M (MMM, Fortune 500), due to report results before the start of trade, is expected to have earned 93 cents per share versus $1.19 a year ago. The Dow component is often seen as a proxy for the economy because of the breadth of its businesses.

After the market close, Amazon.com (AMZN, Fortune 500) is expected to report earnings of 39 cents per share versus 48 cents a year ago.

Friday: A pair of oil companies report results before the start of trade. Chevron (CVX, Fortune 500) is expected to have earned $1.81 per share versus $2.32 a year ago. Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500), a Dow component, is expected to report earnings of $1.47 per share versus $2.16 a year ago.

Also before the open, Dow component Honeywell (HON, Fortune 500) is expected to have earned 97 cents per share, versus 91 cents a share a year ago.

Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500) is expected to have earned $1.58 per share versus 98 cents a year ago. To top of page

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