NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.
U.S. stocks were cued for a steady-to-sloppy open Wednesday as investors ruminated over Tuesday night's earnings from Intel (INTC: Research, Estimates) and mulled over how the rest of the reporting season -- just starting to heat up -- will go. Stock index futures spent time on either side of the flat line, giving no clear sense of the market's direction.
But once stocks start trading, the traders' recent good vibes could take hold again, thought Mizuho Futures vice president Phil Ruffat.
"I think that stocks are going to go higher," he said. "The market looks much more positive."
For details of Tuesday's advance, click above
Although Intel's fourth quarter topped analysts' earnings and sales estimate, the big chipmaker's outlook remains conservative. First-quarter revenues, it said, would come in at $6.5 to $7 billion -- more optimistic than the $6.6 billion analysts polled by First Call expected. But Intel also said it planned to cut the money it spends on new plants and equipment by about $1 billion from 2002's $4.7 billion, and said it expects its first-quarter profit margin to slip to 50 percent from the fourth quarter's 52 percent.
Analysts at Credit Suisse First Boston cut their earnings outlook for Intel slightly, due to a technical factor related to acquisition charges. Merrill Lynch kept its 2003 expectations intact, but lowered its earnings estimate for 2004. Both firms believe that, given their growth expectations, Intel's stock is on the pricey side.
But Intel's upbeat revenue expectations were trumping such concerns ahead of the bell. In premarket trading the stock was up 1 percent.
The companies that sell chipmaking equipment to the likes of Intel, on the other hand, were in for some hurt. Applied Materials (AMAT: Research, Estimates) was down 4.2 percent andKLA-Tencor (KLAC: Research, Estimates) was off 3 percent.
The Labor Department said that producer prices were unchanged in December, against a 0.4 percent decline in November and expectations of a 0.3 percent gain. Core prices, which exclude the volatile food and energy sectors, fell 0.3 percent -- in line with November's drop, but below economists' forecast of a 0.1 percent gain.
The decline in wholesales prices comes despite recent increases in many commodity prices.
Later in the day, the Federal Reserve issues its "beige book" report on the state of the economy. The report will serve as reference to policy makers when they meet to determine interest rates on Jan. 28 and 29.
The Dow Jones industrial average is coming off a 56-point advance Tuesday. The Nasdaq composite index rose more than 1 percent with its nearly 15-point gain.
Asian-Pacific stocks finished mostly higher Wednesday, with Tokyo's Nikkei index up 0.7 percent. European markets fell in early trading.
Treasury prices were flat, with the 10-year note yielding 4.07 percent. The dollar rebounded off recent lows against the yen and euro.
As U.N. weapons inspectors visited the main presidential palace of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Brent oil futures rallied 44 cents to $30.06 a barrel in London. Gold edged higher.
Bank of America tops the list of financial services companies scheduled to report quarterly results before trading begins. Earnings are expected to have climbed to $1.63 a share from $1.28 a share a year earlier, according to a consensus of analysts surveyed by First Call.
Bank of America (BAC: Research, Estimates) shares edged lower in European trading.
Among financial companies that have already weighed in Wednesday, KeyCorp (KEY: Research, Estimates) met analysts' estimates while mortgage originator Fannie Mae (FNM: Research, Estimates) topped forecasts.
After the closing bell, Internet portal operator Yahoo! (YHOO: Research, Estimates) delivers its fourth-quarter numbers. It's expected to post a profit of 6 cents a share versus the breakeven result reported a year earlier.
In a morning note, Credit Suisse First Boston upgraded Radio Shack (RSH: Research, Estimates) to "neutral" from "underperform," citing less downside to holiday sales than in previous years. Shares of the electronics retailer rose $1.02 to $21.93 Tuesday.
Merrill Lynch increased its 2003 earnings estimate for AmSouth Bancorp (ASO: Research, Estimates) to $1.75 a share from $1.70, citing shares repurchase, more stable net interest margin and deposit growth. Shares of AmSouth rose 89 cents to $20.98 Tuesday.
For more analyst comments, click here.