Best Buy warns of layoffs as it issues soft full-year guidance

People walk past a Best Buy store in Manhattan, New York City, November 22, 2021.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

Best Buy surpassed Wall Street’s revenue and earnings expectations for the holiday quarter on Thursday, even as the company navigated through a period of tepid consumer electronics demand.

But the retailer warned of another year of softer sales and said it would lay off workers and cut other costs across the business. CEO Corie Barry offered few specifics, but said the company has to make sure its workforce and stores match customers’ changing shopping habits. Cuts will free up capital to invest back into the business and in newer areas, such as artificial intelligence, she added.

“This is giving us some of that space to be able to reinvest into our future and make sure we feel like we are really well positioned for the industry to start to rebound,” she said on a call with reporters.

For this fiscal year, Best Buy anticipates revenue will range from $41.3 billion to $42.6 billion. That would mark a drop from the most recently ended fiscal year, when full-year revenue totaled $43.45 billion. It said comparable sales will range from flat to a 3% decline.

The retailer plans to close 10 to 15 stores this year after shuttering 24 in the past fiscal year.

One challenge that will affect sales in the year ahead: it is a week shorter. Best Buy said the extra week in the past fiscal year lifted revenue by about $735 million and boosted diluted earnings per share by about 30 cents.

Shares of Best Buy closed more than 1% higher Thursday after briefly touching a 52-week high of $86.11 earlier in the session.

Here’s what the consumer electronics retailer reported for its fiscal fourth quarter of 2024 compared with what Wall Street was expecting, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: $2.72, adjusted vs. $2.52 expected
  • Revenue: $14.65 billion vs. $14.56 billion expected

A dip in demand, but a better-than-feared holiday

Best Buy has dealt with slower demand in part due to the strength of its sales during the pandemic. Like home improvement companies, Best Buy saw outsized spending as shoppers were stuck at home. Plus, many items that the retailer sells like laptops, refrigerators and home theater systems tend to be pricier and less frequent purchases.

The retailer has cited other challenges, too: Shoppers have been choosier about making big purchases while dealing with inflation-driven higher prices of food and more. Plus, they’ve returned to splitting their dollars between services and goods after pandemic years of little activity.

Even so, Best Buy put up a holiday quarter that was better than feared. In the three-month period that ended Feb. 3, the company’s net income fell by 7% to $460 million, or $2.12 per share, from $495 million, or $2.23 per share in the year-ago period. Revenue dropped from $14.74 billion a year earlier.

Comparable sales, a metric that includes sales online and at stores open at least 14 months, declined 4.8% during the quarter as shoppers bought fewer appliances, mobile phones, tablets and home theater setups than the year-ago period. Gaming, on the other hand, was a strong sales category in the holiday quarter.

In the U.S., Best Buy’s comparable sales dropped 5.1% and its online sales decreased by 4.8%.

During the quarter, traditional holiday shopping days were Best Buy’s strongest, CFO Matt Bilunas said on the company’s earnings call. Comparable sales were down 5% year over year in November but fell just 2% in December around the gift-giving holidays. January was the weakest month during the quarter with comparable sales down 12%, he said.

Barry said customers “were very deal-focused through the holiday season.” Sales on days known for deep discounts like Black Friday and the week of Cyber Monday matched expectations, but the December sales lull was worse than expected.

Demand was stronger than the company anticipated in the four days before Christmas.

Signs of ‘stabilization’

On the earnings call, Barry said Best Buy expects the coming year to be one “of increasing industry sales stabilization.”

She said the company is “focused on sharpening our customer experiences and industry positioning,” along with driving up its operating income rate. That metric is expected to improve in the coming year.

Strength in services revenue, which includes fees from its annual membership program, in-home installation and repairs, has helped to offset weaker demand for new items. It’s a growth area that the company expects will persist in the coming year.

Some gains in its service business came from a switch to My Best Buy, a three-tiered membership program that ranges in price from free to $179.99 per year depending on the perks and benefits.

The company removed home installations as a perk of that program, which Barry said on a call with reporters resulted in more people choosing to pay for that service.

As of the end of the fiscal year, My Best Buy had 7 million paid members. She said customers who belong to the program spent more at Best Buy than those who don’t.

Barry said Best Buy’s services will help the retailer stand out, especially as customers seek guidance as artificial intelligence becomes part of more devices.

The retailer has been waiting for customers to upgrade and replace their consumer electronics after the pandemic-induced wave. There are some signs that cycle has begun, Barry said on the earnings call. For example, she said, year-over-year comparable sales for laptops turned positive in the fiscal fourth quarter and have remained positive in the first quarter.

She cited other positive indicators, too, including cooling inflation and “green shoots” in the housing market. Sales at Best Buy are not directly correlated to the housing market, which has seen slower turnover, but home purchases do tend to spur appliance and TV purchases, she said.

Best Buy paid dividends of $198 million and spent $70 million on share buybacks during the period. On Thursday, the company said its board of directors had approved a 2% increase in the regular quarterly dividend to 94 cents per share, which will be paid in April.

As of Thursday’s close, Best Buy’s stock is up roughly 3% so far this year. The company has underperformed the approximately 7% gains of the S&P 500 during that period. Best Buy has a market value of about $17.4 billion.

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Walmart beats Wall Street’s holiday expectations as e-commerce sales soar

Walmart said Tuesday that quarterly revenue rose 6%, as shoppers turned to the big-box retailer throughout the holiday season and the company’s global e-commerce sales grew by double digits. 

The retail giant also announced Tuesday that it would acquire smart TV maker Vizio to accelerate growth of its advertising business. Walmart is acquiring the company for $2.3 billion, or $11.50 per share. 

In a CNBC interview, Chief Financial Officer John David Rainey said customers have still shown discretion with purchases. They are putting fewer items in their baskets but shopping more frequently, he said. Electronics, TVs, computers and some other expensive items have been a tougher sell, Rainey added.

Yet, he said even after the holiday rush, Walmart saw continued sales strength.

Here’s what Walmart reported compared with what Wall Street was expecting, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: $1.80 adjusted vs. $1.65 expected
  • Revenue: $173.39 billion vs. $170.71 billion expected

In the three-month period that ended Jan. 31, Walmart’s net income fell to $5.49 billion or $2.03 per share, compared with $6.28 billion, or $2.32 per share, in the year-ago period.

Revenue increased from $164.05 billion in the year-ago period.

Walmart said it expects consolidated net sales to rise 4% to 5% in its fiscal first quarter. It also anticipates adjusted earnings of $1.48 to $1.56 per share on a pre-stock split basis.

For its fiscal 2025, the retailer expects consolidated net sales will climb 3% to 4%. Walmart anticipates adjusted earnings will be $6.70 to $7.12 per share on a pre-stock split basis.

Walmart shares closed 3% higher Tuesday after the company shared its results, outlook and acquisition news. Shares of Walmart are up more than 11% this year, outperforming the S&P 500, which is up about 4% during the same period.

Walmart’s e-commerce strength

Walmart has weathered high inflation better than many other retailers. It has used its value reputation to draw in families across income levels and has leaned into new ways to make money, such as selling ads, expanding its third-party marketplace and offering a subscription-based program called Walmart+.

Comparable sales, an industry metric also known as same-store sales, rose 4% for Walmart U.S. At Sam’s Club, comparable sales increased 1.9%, including fuel. 

Global e-commerce sales jumped 23% year over year, topping $100 billion in total. In the U.S., e-commerce rose 17% as shoppers used curbside pickup and got orders delivered to their homes.

Customer transactions increased 4.3% compared with the year-ago period in the U.S. However, average ticket, or the amount that a customer spent, declined slightly. 

Prices have fallen in some categories. Private brands made by Walmart, which tend to be cheaper, have gained popularity in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

CEO Doug McMillon said on an earnings call Tuesday that prices of general merchandise, a category that includes items such as clothing, are lower than a year ago and even two years ago for some things. For food, prices are lower for some items such as apples, eggs and deli snacks, but higher for other items such as asparagus and blackberries.

Prices of dry grocery items, paper goods and cleaning supplies are up mid-single-digit percentages compared to last year and high teens compared with two years ago.

Walmart also backed away from predictions of deflation. On the company’s third-quarter earnings call in November, McMillon said the company could soon face a deflationary environment, where prices not just stabilize, but also decline. He said those lower prices could help customers pay for more discretionary items.

On Tuesday, however, Rainey told CNBC that deflation seems less likely now. “The possibility overall [of deflation] still remains, but prices are more stable than where they were three months ago,” he said.

Profit push

One reason for Walmart’s earnings growth? The company is selling more than just cereal, socks and shampoo.

Walmart has shifted into more profitable businesses — and that new model is a major part of its future. For instance, the retailer makes money from packing and shipping online orders for sellers that are part of its third-party marketplace. It had a delivery business that drops off purchases from major companies such as Home Depot, and local shops such as bakeries.

It’s also selling more ads, posting gains for the business of about 33% globally and 22% in the U.S. year over year.

Rainey told CNBC that the Vizio acquisition will be “an accelerant” for the “high-margin, fast-growing part of our business.” By using the TV’s operating system, Walmart could not only show ads, but also have better data that tracks how customers engage with the ad and if it leads to purchases.

The company has also boosted efficiency by adding automation to distribution centers that replenish store shelves and fulfillment centers that keep up with online orders.

At an investor day last year, Walmart spoke about how it planned to grow profits faster than sales over the next five years.

On an annual basis, Walmart now expects to grow sales more than 5% and operating income more than 8% on average, Rainey told investors on Tuesday’s earnings call.

Walmart’s e-commerce business is not yet profitable, but Rainey said the company is getting closer. He said the cost of fulfillment has fallen 20% over the past year, as the company drops off more packages on each delivery route and sells related services, such as online ads.

Customers are shopping more on Walmart’s website and app, which helps create those denser delivery routes. Weekly active e-commerce customers grew 17% over the past year, he said.

Expanding stores, boosting dividend

As many other companies have announced cost cuts, Walmart has done the opposite. It announced in late January that it would open or expand more than 150 stores in the U.S. over the next five years. That’s on top of an aggressive plan to upgrade more than 1,400 of its existing Walmart stores to have a more modern look.

Stores that have gotten that fresh design have had higher sales within their four walls and lifted sales in the surrounding market, Rainey told investors on the earnings call. He said the renovated stores make more room for online pickup and delivery orders and have improved Walmart’s reputation with shoppers.

Along with those store investments, Walmart said it would raise store manager wages to an average of $128,000 per year and make managers eligible for a bonus of up to 200% of their base salary.

It also announced a 3-for-1 stock split in late January, as shares hovered near an all-time high.

On Tuesday, Walmart said it would reward shareholders, too. It is raising its dividend by 9% this year, the largest increase in more than a decade.

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2 out of 5 industrial stocks are at record highs. Here’s our post-earnings outlook on all of them

Eaton Corporation signage at the NYSE

Source: NYSE

Earnings season was not perfect for our industrial-focused portfolio companies, but we’re feeling pretty good about their prospects for the rest of the year.

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Biogen revenue and profit shrink on Aduhelm costs, slumping sales of multiple sclerosis therapies

A Biogen facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Brian Snyder | Reuters

Biogen on Tuesday reported fourth-quarter revenue and profit that shrank from a year ago, as it recorded charges related to dropping its controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm and as sales slumped in its multiple sclerosis therapies, the company’s biggest drug category.

Biogen booked sales of $2.39 billion for the quarter, down 6% from the same period a year ago. It reported net income of $249.7 million, or $1.71 per share, for the fourth quarter, down from net income of $550.4 million, or $3.79 per share, for the same period a year ago. Adjusting for one-time items, the company reported $2.95 per share.

The drugmaker’s fourth-quarter earnings per share, both unadjusted and adjusted, saw a negative impact of 35 cents associated with previously disclosed costs of pulling Aduhelm, which had a polarizing approval and rollout in the U.S.

Biogen is cutting costs while pinning its hopes on its other Alzheimer’s drugs, including its closely watched treatment Leqembi, and other newly launched products to replace declining revenue from its multiple sclerosis therapies.

Shares of Biogen closed more than 7% lower on Tuesday.

Here’s what Biogen reported for the fourth quarter compared with what Wall Street was expecting, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv: 

  • Earnings per share: $2.95 adjusted vs. $3.18 expected
  • Revenue: $2.39 billion vs. $2.47 billion expected

Also on Tuesday, Biogen issued full-year 2024 guidance that calls for adjusted earnings of $15 to $16 per share. Analysts surveyed by LSEG had expected full-year earnings guidance of $15.65 per share.

The drugmaker said it expects 2024 sales to decline by a low to mid-single digit percentage compared with last year. But the company anticipates its pharmaceutical revenue, which includes product revenue and its 50% share of Leqembi sales, to be flat this year compared with 2023.

Multiple sclerosis drug sales slump

Biogen’s fourth-quarter revenue from multiple sclerosis products fell 8% to $1.17 billion as some of the therapies face competition from cheaper generics.

The company’s once-blockbuster drug Tecfidera, which is facing competition from a generic rival, posted revenue that fell 17.8% to $244.3 million in the fourth quarter. Analysts had expected that drug to book sales of $233.1 million, according to FactSet.

Vumerity, an oral medication for relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis, generated $156.4 million in sales. That came in below analysts’ estimates of $174.4 million, FactSet estimates said. 

“We’ve had several years of declining revenue and profit, which is not unusual when you’re dealing with patent expirations,” Biogen CEO Christopher Viehbacher told reporters on a media call Tuesday. He added that one of the key ways Biogen will return to growth is to “reposition the company away from our legacy franchise of multiple sclerosis towards new products.”

Meanwhile, Biogen’s rare disease drugs recorded $471.8 million in sales, up 3% from the same period a year ago. 

Spinraza, a medication used to treat a rare neuromuscular disorder called spinal muscular atrophy, recorded $412.6 million in sales. That came under analysts’ estimate of $443.4 million in revenue, according to FactSet. 

Biogen’s biosimilar drugs booked $188.2 million in sales, up 8% from the year-earlier period. Analysts had expected sales of $196.7 million from those medicines.

Leqembi, other new drugs

The results come amid the rollout of Biogen and Eisai’s Leqembi, which became the first drug found to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease to win approval in the U.S. in July.

Eisai, which reported earnings last week, recorded $7 million in fourth-quarter revenue and $10 million in full-year sales from Leqembi.

Biogen CEO Viehbacher told reporters on the media call Tuesday that there are around 2,000 patients currently on Leqembi. That makes Biogen’s target of 10,000 patients by the end of March 2024 look increasingly difficult to hit, but Viehbacher emphasized that the company is focused more on the long-term reach of Leqembi rather than meeting that benchmark. 

“I think what’s important is we are now making progress,” he told reporters. “The 10,000 isn’t really hard and I think we are now really focusing on commercial plans — how do we get to the next 100,000?”

Notably, the low rate of adoption isn’t due to lack of demand: There are some 8,000 U.S. patients currently waiting to get on treatment, executives from Eisai said on an earnings call last week. 

More CNBC health coverage

The companies are also working toward Food and Drug Administration approval of an injectable version of Leqembi, which showed promising initial results in a clinical trial in October. 

Leqembi is currently administered twice monthly through the veins, a method known as intravenous infusion. The injectable form would be a new and more convenient option for administering the antibody treatment to patients, which could pave the way for higher uptake. 

But investors also have their eyes on other newly launched drugs. 

That includes Skyclarys from Biogen’s acquisition of Reata Pharmaceuticals in July. That drug brought in $56 million in fourth-quarter revenue, according to Biogen.

The FDA cleared Skyclarys last year, making it the first approved treatment for Friedreich ataxia, a rare inherited degenerative disease that can impair walking and coordination in children as young as 5.

On Monday, European Union regulators approved Skyclarys for the treatment of Friedreich ataxia in patients ages 16 and up. 

Biogen has also partnered with Sage Therapeutics on the first pill for postpartum depression, which won FDA approval in August. But the agency declined to clear the drug for major depressive disorder, which is a far larger commercial opportunity. 

Biogen said that pill, called Zurzuvae, generated roughly $2 million in sales for the fourth-quarter.

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Former hedge fund star says this is what will trigger the next bear market.

Much of Wall Street expects easing inflation, but an overshoot could dash hopes of a May rate cut, curtailing the S&P 500’s
SPX
waltz with 5,000, warn some.

Read: Arm’s frenzied stock rally continues as AI chase trumps valuation.

What might take this market down eventually? Our call of the day from former hedge-fund manager Russell Clark points to Japan, an island nation whose central bank is one of the last holdouts of loose monetary policy.

Note, Clark bailed on his perma bear RC Global Fund back in 2021 after wrongly betting against stocks for much of a decade. But he’s got a whole theory on why Japan matters so much.

In his substack post, Clark argues that the real bear-market trigger will come when the Bank of Japan ends quantitative easing. For starters, he argues we’re in a “pro-labor world” where a few things should be playing out: higher wages and lower jobless levels and interest rates higher than expected. Lining up with his expectations, real assets started to surge in late 2023 when the Fed started to go dovish, and the yield curve began to steepen.

From that point, not everything has been matching up so easily. He thought higher short-term rates would siphon off money from speculative assets, but then money flowed into cryptos like Tether and the Nasdaq recovered completely from a 2022 rout.

“I have been toying with the idea that semiconductors are a the new oil – and hence have become a strategic asset. This explains the surge in the Nasdaq and the Nikkei to a degree, but does not really explain tether or bitcoin very well,” he said.

So back to Japan and his not so popular explanation for why financial/speculative assets continue to trade so well.

“The Fed had high interest rates all through the 1990s, and dot-com bubble developed anyway. But during that time, the Bank of Japan only finally raised interest rates in 1999 and then the bubble burst,” he said.

He notes that when Japan began to tighten rates in late 2006, “everything started to unwind,” adding that the BOJ’s brief attempts [to] raise rates in 1996 could be blamed for the Asian Financial Crisis.

In Clark’s view, markets seem to have moved more with the Japan’s bank balance sheet than the Fed’s. The BOJ “invented” quantitative easing in the early 2000s, and the subprime crisis started not long after it removed that liquidity from the market in 2006, he notes.

“For really old investors, loose Japanese monetary policy also explained the bubble economy of the 1980s. BOJ Balance Sheet and S&P 500 have decent correlation in my book,” he said, offering the below chart:


Capital Flows and Asset Markets, Russell Clark.

Clark says that also helps explains why higher bond yields haven’t really hurt assets. “As JGB 10 yields have risen, the BOJ has committed to unlimited purchases to keep it below 1%,” he notes.

The two big takeaways here? “BOJ is the only central bank that matters…and that we need to get bearish the U.S. when the BOJ raises interest rates. Given the moves in bond markets and food inflation, this is a matter of time,” said Clark who says in light of his plans for a new fund, “a bear market would be extremely useful for me.” He’s watching the BOJ closely.

The markets

Pre-data, stock futures
ES00,
-0.41%

NQ00,
-0.80%

are down, while Treasury yields
BX:TMUBMUSD10Y

BX:TMUBMUSD02Y
hold steady. Oil
CL.1,
+0.79%

and gold
GC00,
+0.46%

are both higher. The Nikkei 225 index
JP:NIK
tapped 38,000 for the first time since 1990.

Key asset performance

Last

5d

1m

YTD

1y

S&P 500

5,021.84

1.60%

4.98%

5.28%

21.38%

Nasdaq Composite

15,942.55

2.21%

6.48%

6.20%

34.06%

10 year Treasury

4.181

7.83

11.45

30.03

42.81

Gold

2,038.10

-0.17%

-0.75%

-1.63%

9.33%

Oil

77.14

5.96%

6.02%

8.15%

-2.55%

Data: MarketWatch. Treasury yields change expressed in basis points

The buzz

Due at 8:30 a.m., January headline consumer prices are expected to dip to 2.9% for January, down from 3.4% in December and the lowest since March 2021. Monthly inflation is seen at 0.3%.

Biogen
BIIB,
+1.56%

stock is down on disappointing results and a slow launch for its Alzheimer’s treatment. A miss is also hitting Krispy Kreme
DNUT,
+1.99%
,
Coca-Cola
KO,
+0.24%

is up on a revenue rise, with Hasbro
HAS,
+1.38%
,
Molson Coors
TAP,
+3.12%

and Marriott
MAR,
+0.74%

still to come, followed by Airbnb
ABNB,
+4.20%
,
Akamai
AKAM,
-0.13%

and MGM Resorts
MGM,
+0.60%

after the close. Hasbro stock is plunging on an earnings miss.

JetBlue
JBLU,
+2.19%

is surging after billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn disclosed a near 10% stake and said his firm is discussing possible board representation.

Tripadvisor stock
TRIP,
+3.04%

is up 10% after the travel-services platform said it was considering a possible sale.

In a first, Russia put Estonia’s prime minister on a “wanted” list. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate approved aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Best of the web

Why chocolate lovers will pay more this Valentine’s Day than they have in years

A startup wants to harvest lithium from America’s biggest saltwater lake.

Online gambling transactions hit nearly 15,000 per second during the Super Bowl.

The chart

Deutsche Bank has taken a deep dive into the might of the Magnificent Seven, and why they will continue to matter for investors. One reason? Nearly 40% of the world still doesn’t have internet access as the bank’s chart shows:

Top tickers

These were the top-searched tickers on MarketWatch as of 6 a.m.

Ticker

Security name

TSLA,
-2.81%
Tesla

NVDA,
+0.16%
Nvidia

ARM,
+29.30%
Arm Holdings

PLTR,
+2.75%
Palantir Technologies

NIO,
+2.53%
Nio

AMC,
+4.11%
AMC Entertainment

AAPL,
-0.90%
Apple

AMZN,
-1.21%
Amazon.com

MARA,
+14.19%
Marathon Digital

TSM,
-1.99%
NIO

Random reads

Everyone wants this freak “It bag.”

Dumped over a text? Get your free dumplings.

Messi the dog steals Oscars’ limelight.

Love and millions of flowers stop in Miami.

Need to Know starts early and is updated until the opening bell, but sign up here to get it delivered once to your email box. The emailed version will be sent out at about 7:30 a.m. Eastern.

Check out On Watch by MarketWatch, a weekly podcast about the financial news we’re all watching – and how that’s affecting the economy and your wallet.

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The Hoax of Modern Finance – Part 7: The Illusion of Forecasting

Note to the reader: This is the seventh in a series of articles I’m publishing here taken from my book, “Investing with the Trend.” Hopefully, you will find this content useful. Market myths are generally perpetuated by repetition, misleading symbolic connections, and the complete ignorance of facts. The world of finance is full of such tendencies, and here, you’ll see some examples. Please keep in mind that not all of these examples are totally misleading — they are sometimes valid — but have too many holes in them to be worthwhile as investment concepts. And not all are directly related to investing and finance. Enjoy! – Greg


“Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge.” — Lao Tzu

So that there can be no confusion, I want to state my honest heartfelt opinion on forecasting: I adamantly believe there is no one who knows what the market will do tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, or at any time in the future—period.

Hindsight is a wonderful tool to use in order to know why something might have occurred in the past, but rarely is the cause known during the event itself. The prediction business is gigantic. William Sherden, in The Fortune Sellers, claimed that in 1998 the prediction business accounted for $200 billion worth of mostly erroneous predictions. Can you imagine with the growth of the Internet and globalization, what that industry is today? Frightening! As Oaktree Capital Management’s Howard Marks says, “You cannot predict, but you can prepare.”

Dean Williams, then-senior vice president of Batterymarch Financial Management, gave a keynote speech at the Financial Analysts Federation Seminar in August 1981, where he made some almost prophetic comments about investing that are as true today as they were then. He spoke about the relationship between physics and investing, but I have previously discussed that subject. Another comment was, “One of the most consuming uses of our time, in fact, has been accumulating information to help us make forecasts of all those things we think we have to predict. Where’s the evidence that it works? I’ve been looking for it. Really! Here are my conclusions: Confidence in a forecast rises with the amount of information that goes into it. But the accuracy of the forecast stays the same.” Later on, he added, “It’s that you can be a successful investor without being a perpetual forecaster. Not only that, I can tell you from personal experience that one of the most liberating experiences you can have is to be asked to go over your firm’s economic outlook and say, ‘We don’t have one.'” He goes on to talk about using simple approaches versus complex ones, delving into the fact that they also must be consistent approaches. This is a must-read; you can find it from an Internet search on Dean Williams Batterymarch.

Sherden states that the title “second oldest profession” usually goes to lawyers and consultants, but prognosticators are the rightful owners. Early records from 5,000 years ago show that forecasting was practiced in the ancient world in the form of divination, the art of telling the future by seeing patterns and clues in everything from animal entrails to celestial patterns. As Isaac Asimov wrote in Future Days, such was the eagerness of people to believe these augers that they had great power and could usually count on being well supported by a grateful, or fearful, public. I’m not so sure most of this isn’t applicable to today. Sherden did much research into the numbers of people directly involved in forecasting—and this data was from 1998. They are staggering and growing. And let’s not forget that one of the largest-selling newspapers in the country is the National Enquirer. Below are some of the findings on forecasting from Sherden’s book.

  • No better than guessing.
  • No long-term accuracy.
  • Cannot predict turning points.
  • No leading forecasters.
  • No forecaster was better with specific statistics.
  • No one ideology was better.
  • Consensus forecasts do not improve accuracy.
  • Psychological bias distorts forecasters.
  • Increased sophistication does not improve accuracy.
  • No improvement over the years.

A weather forecaster will have an exceptional record if he says simply that tomorrow will be just like today. If I were a weather forecaster, I would tend to err on the side of bad weather instead of good weather. Then, if you are wrong, most will not notice. It is when you forecast good weather, and it is not, that they will notice. Most market prognosticators tend to have a bullish or a bearish bias in their forecasts. Bullish forecasts are generally well-accepted, especially by the Wall Street community, and bearish forecasting is a giant business because it infringes on investors’ fears.

“Given the difficulties forecasting the future, it is very useful to simply know the present.” — Unknown

Barry Ritholtz (The Big Picture blog) recently pointed out how ridiculous the forecasting business has become. In particular, the end-of-the-year forecasts for the next year or the best stocks to own. Here is an example from the August 14, 2000, issue of Fortune magazine by David Rynecki on “10 Stocks to Last the Decade.”

August 14, 2000

  • Nokia (NOK: $54)
  • Nortel Networks (NT: $77)
  • Enron (ENE: $73)
  • Oracle (ORCL: $74)
  • Broadcom (BRCM: $237)
  • Viacom (VIA: $69)
  • Univision (UVN: $113)
  • Charles Schwab (SCH: $36)
  • Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (MWD: $89)
  • Genentech (DNA: $150)

Closing Prices December 19, 2012

  • Nokia (NOK: $4.22)
  • Nortel Networks ($0)
  • Enron ($0)
  • Oracle (ORCL: $34.22)
  • Broadcom (BRCM: $33.28)
  • Viacom (VIA: $54.17)
  • Univision ($?)
  • Charles Schwab (SCH: $14.61)
  • Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (MWD: $14.20)
  • Genentech (Takeover at $95 share)

Ritholtz goes on to say, “The portfolio managed to lose 74.31 percent, with three bankruptcies, one bailout, and not a single winner in the bunch. Even the Roche Holdings takeover of Genentech was for 37 percent below the suggested purchase price. Had you merely bought the S&P 500 Index ETF (SPY), you would have seen a gain of over 23 percent.”

On March 11, 2008, CNBC’s Mad Money host, Jim Cramer, emphatically said it was foolish to move money out of Bear Stearns. He claimed that Bear Stearns was just fine. He was totally wrong. A week later, JPMorgan agrees on March 16 to buy Bear for $236 million, or $2 a share, representing just over 1 percent of the firm’s value at its record high close just 14 months earlier. The deal essentially marked the end of Bear’s 85-year run as an independent securities firm. On Monday, March 17, Bear shares closed at $4.81 on optimism another buyer may emerge. The average target price: $2. Don’t confuse advice from someone in the entertainment business with advice from someone who manages money. In fact, don’t pay attention to anyone’s predictions. No one knows the future!

The Reign of Error

In 1987, a book was written entitled The Great Depression of 1990, by Dr. Ravi Batra, an SMU professor of economics. Sadly, I bought and read that book. Batra was claimed as one of the great theorists in the world and ranked third in a group of 46 superstars selected from all economists in American and Canadian universities by the learned journal Economic Inquiry (October 1978). The foreword was written by world-renowned economist Lester Thurow, who said The Great Depression of 1990 is crucial reading for everyone who hopes to survive and prosper in the coming economic upheaval. The title for one chapter was “The Great Depression of 1990–96.” Not only did he pronounce the beginning of it, he also proclaimed to know the end.

The 1990s saw the largest bull market in history, with the Dow Industrials rising from 2,700 to over 11,000 during the decade of the 1990s. By the end of the decade, we were flooded with books about the never-ending bull market, such as Dow 40,000 by Elias, Dow 36,000 by Glassman and Hassett, and Dow 100,000 by Kadlec. From 2000 until early 2003, we witnessed a bear market that removed most of the gains of the previous 10 years, with the Dow Industrials back down to about 7,350.

“We are making forecasts with bad numbers, but bad numbers are all we have.” — Michael Penjer

 These forecasts were dead wrong; however, I ‘m sure the authors sold a lot of books. The bad news in the stock market did not end after the bear market from 2000 to 2003; by March 2009, the Dow Industrials was below the level of the previous bear by another 8 percent. Agencies whose duty is to make forecasts were almost universally wrong during the 2006 to 2007 period, with forecasts of the economy, the markets, and the world outlook all positive; even the ones that weren’t quite as rosy were only modestly so. The business magazines were the same. How many forecasts do you find yourself reading and listening to? Did you ever research to see if any of them ever turned out to be correct? Or even close?

Finance is not the same as physics, in that no mathematical model can fully capture the large number of always changing economic factors that cause big market moves—the financial meltdown of 2008 is an example. Emanuel Derman says, “In physics, you’re playing against God; in finance, you’re playing against people.” The parallelism between physics and finance has gained support from author Nassim Taleb, who says, “It doesn’t meet the very simple rule of demarcation between science and hogwash.” Whether invoking the physicist Richard Feyman or the late Fischer Black, the use of mathematical models to value securities is an exercise in estimation. Derman further states, “You need to think about how to account for the mismatch between models and the real world.”

“Science is a great many things, but in the end they all return to this: Science is the acceptance of what works and the rejection of what doesn’t. That needs more courage that we might think.” — Jacob Bronoski

Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) was started by John Meriwether, who had a great following along with Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, two famous economists. Together, they grew LTCM into assets of more than $130 billion, using a model they claimed would achieve exceptional returns without the usual risk. That alone should have been all the warning anyone needed. In 1997, their model did not do well, and by mid-1998 they had lost all of it; they had borrowed more than a trillion dollars to make investments. The story ended in September 1998, when the New York Federal Reserve Bank led a group of organizations to step in and bail them out; shortly thereafter, there was no more LTCM. Academics with sophisticated models are a dangerous lot. And here’s the best part—just before the demise, Scholes and Merton won the Nobel Prize for economics for their efforts in financial risk control.

LTCM was not alone; stories of hundreds of funds have gone out of business after short periods of exceptional success. Rogue trades were rampant. Remember Nick Lesson of Barings Bank? How about Jerome Kerviel of Societe Generale, or a host of large banks during the period? The list is long and growing. Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing were just a few large companies that went bankrupt, taking their employees’ pensions and investments with them. I don’t recall anyone ever anticipating any of these failures; forecasters never do.

After the inflationary decade of the 1970s, the price of gold was soaring. In the early 1980s, forecasts of gold reaching unbelievable heights were everywhere. They were supported with the facts that gold’s fixed value was released in 1971 and it was free to trade, and trade it did. The Hunt Brothers had bought a large portion of the silver market. No forecaster saw anything but higher prices. I recall buying three 100-ounce bars and wishing I had more money to buy more. You will see in Chapter 11 on drawdowns that gold plummeted in 1981, and it took more than 25 years to get back to its peak. And by 2013, the forecasts of gold going to the moon were everywhere.

At what point will we start to believe that forecasting is a hoax? This book is about the stock market, where the forecasting business is huge. I can tell you this: stock market forecasters are no different than economic forecasters. The ones who get lucky with a forecast are the ones who have yet to be wrong. I think the worst of them are the ones I call outliers (not to be confused with outlaws); these are the ones who, through some stroke of luck, make a forecast about something big and it turns out to actually happen. However, it is rarely in the exact manner of the forecast, but that is soon forgotten as he or she is paraded through the financial media as the guru of the year. They start newsletters, hold conferences, and embark on periods of more and more forecasts because they are now experts. Yet, most rarely make another correct forecast. John Kenneth Galbraith said: “When it comes to the stock market, there are two kinds of investors: those who do not know where it is going, and those who do not know that they do not know where it is going.”

An Investment Professional’s Dilemma

When speaking to investment advisors, I often remind them that they must deal with two realities:

  1. Your clients expect you to have answers.
  2. The market is unpredictable.

Once you have your clients believing #2, then the questions for #1 will be easier to answer. Most advisors, and especially their clients, get caught up in the moment and are easily swayed into believing that some expert actually knows the future. Or that they focus on the recent past and extrapolate that ad infinitum.

“Mind you, you should take economic forecasts—even my own—with a big grain of salt.” John Kenneth Galbraith may have been more right than econometricians like to think when he said that “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow has his own perspective on forecasting. During World War II, he served as a weather officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, working with individuals who were charged with the particularly difficult task of producing month-ahead weather forecasts. As Arrow and his team reviewed these predictions, they confirmed statistically what you and I might just as easily have guessed: The Corps’ weather forecasts were no more accurate than random rolls of a die. Understandably, the forecasters asked to be relieved of this seemingly futile duty. Arrow’s recollection of his superiors’ response was priceless: “The commanding general is well aware that the forecasts are no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes.” (Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods)

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” — Bob Dylan

The book Dance with Chance by Spyros Makridakis (an author who wrote a wonderful business-forecasting book a couple of decades ago) gives a short story about Karl Popper. Popper was a philosopher of science born in Austria. In the 1930s, he leveled a charge against Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytical theories had gained widespread acceptance. Popper pointed out that real scientists start with conjectures, which they then try to refute—as well as seeking evidence to support them. Only by failing to disprove their hypotheses, can they prove they were correct. Meanwhile pseudoscientists, as Popper called them, only look for events that prove their theories correct. Theories like this are little more than untested assertions. That’s not to say the assertions can’t eventually turn out to be right, but we can only reach this conclusion once someone has tested them.

“Forecasting the future is much more difficult than forecasting the past.” — Unknown

Forecasting the future of monetary, economic, financial, or political possibilities has a serious flaw in that regardless of if your forecast is close to being correct, or even if it is spot on, the assumption about how the market will react is where the big problem lies. There is a flawed belief that positive events from political, economic, and monetary news will reflect positively on the markets. Conversely, negative news events will reflect negatively on the markets. This simply is not true. You can see that there is hardly any usable correlation to these events and the markets; earnings announcements are a perfect example. How many times have they been positive and the stock market did not react accordingly? The gap between a good economic or monetary forecast and the reality of what the market does is huge.

“There is always a reason for a stock acting the way it does. But also remember that chances are you will not become acquainted with that reason until sometime in the future, when it is too late to act on it profitably.” — Jesse Livermore

The following (slightly modified) comes from Gary Anderson, who wrote the must-read book entitled The Janus Factor. The link between fundamentals and price is elastic, and rarely still. At times, good earnings reports cause the price of a stock to rise, while at other times traders use positive earnings news to sell the same stock. Will a global crisis increase the value of the dollar or send it lower? The linkage between change in the world and change in the market is often ambiguous and sometimes just plain mysterious. In most cases, human beings are clever enough to create plausible stories to account for the market’s response to events, but too often only with the aid of hindsight. There is a constant shift in the fundamental reasoning used to support decisions to buy and sell. The financial media is constantly justifying each move in the market with whatever recent event they can find that supports that move. Fundamental conventions supporting buy/sell decisions can vary from period to period and have no place in rational investing.

We can draw a useful distinction between reasons and causes. Earnings do not cause prices to move, nor do research reports, news bulletins, talking heads, dividends, stock splits, the economy, peace, or war. These factors may be reasons motivating traders to buy and sell, but the direct cause of a stock’s price movement is the buying and selling activity of traders and investors. We focus on causes, not reasons—on what traders do, not why. This is accomplished by measuring price and price derivatives (breadth, relative strength) of price movement.

Gurus/Experts

What would we do without all the experts, gurus, pontificators, purveyors of gloom and doom, and, of course, the perma-bulls and perma-bears?

First of all, a giant industry would be gone, an industry that generates billions of dollars in the USA alone. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on this, because the website of CXO Advisory Group LLC, CXOadvisory.com , does all the heavy lifting. They have an entire section devoted to GURUS. Here are the two questions they ask at the beginning of that section: “Can experts, whether self-proclaimed or endorsed by others (publications), provide reliable stock market timing guidance? Do some experts clearly show better intuition about overall market direction than others?” They address these questions with a logical and transparent process. After following more than 60 experts and thousands of observations, near the end of the Guru section, they conclude: “The overall accuracy of the group, based on both raw forecast count and on the average of forecaster accuracies (weighting each individual equally) is 47 percent. In summary, stock market experts as a group do not reliably outguess the market. Some experts, though, may be better than others.” Hmmm! It seems like a coin toss, on average, would do better.

Additionally, CXOadvisory.com reviews numerous academic papers, and then does its own backup analysis to determine if the paper’s author and they agree. An excellent piece, when reviewing Charles Manski’s July 2010 paper entitled “Policy Analysis with Incredible Certitude,” categorizes incredible analytical practices and underlying certitude. These four are:

  1. Conventional certitudes (conventional wisdom)—Predictions (indicators) that experts generally accept as accurate, but are not necessarily accurate.
  2. Dueling certitudes—Two contradictory predictions that competing experts present as exact, with no expression of uncertainty (leading to conflicting strong investment strategy recommendations).
  3. Conflating science and advocacy—Developing arguments (assumptions) that support an investment strategy rather than an investment strategy that supports evidence-based arguments, while portraying the deliberative process as scientific.
  4. Wishful extrapolation—Drawing a conclusion about some future situation based on historical tendencies and untenable assumptions (ignoring differences between the historical and future situations, and emphasizing in-sample over out-of-sample testing).

If you have ever watched television, read a newsletter, or attended a seminar, I’m sure the above sounds familiar. People who appear as experts generally aren’t any better than the masses; however, when they are wrong, they are rarely held accountable, and never admit it (generally). They will respond that their timing was just off or some catastrophic event caught them off guard, or worse—wrong for the right reasons.

There is a book by Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, that deals with the business of prediction. Tetlock claims that the better-known and more frequently quoted they are, the less reliable their guesses about the future are likely to be. The accuracy of their predictions actually has an inverse relationship to his or her self-confidence, renown, and depth of knowledge. Listen to experts at your own risk.

Larry Williams was an active and renowned trader before I even began to show interest in the markets. There is one significant point that Larry has made consistently that needs to be repeated here. If you are going to be mentored by someone, if you are going to read someone’s book on trading/investing, if you are going to sign up for a course of instruction from someone, please make sure they are qualified to teach the subject. This does not always translate into how they trade or invest. Like Larry says in his Trading Lesson 16, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tried coaching and was a disaster at it; Mark Spitz’s swimming coach could not swim. However, the bottom line is that the best teachers are probably the ones who actually trade and invest, as they have firsthand experience to the nuances of the skill. This argument is not unlike the one between the ivory tower academics and those involved in the real world applying their craft every day. While they may have considerable talent to offer, your chances are probably better with a real practitioner.

Masking an Intellectual Void

My formal education was in aerospace engineering. My education in “The World of Finance” came and continues to come from people in the investment industry I have grown to respect. I hate to list some as fear of leaving someone out, but Ed Easterling, John Hussman, and James Montier are certainly at the top of the list. Are these professionals always correct? Of course not, but they usually admit it and they write in such a manner that they know the uncertainty is always there and yet present valid arguments on a wide range of topics and concepts. The rest of the learning comes for reading literally hundreds and hundreds of white papers in finance and economics. This process caused my concern at the insane use of advanced mathematics, usually in the form of partial differential equations, to supposedly assist in making the point that the paper was addressing. I cannot tell you how many times I thought that most of the math was unnecessary and more often than not the paper would have stood alone without the math. In many instances I think there is an attempt by most to overly complicate their work with mathematics with the belief that it brings credibility to their work. Another reason, and one I certainly cannot prove, is that they also know that most people who read their paper, other than their peers, will not grasp the math and just assume it is valid and necessary.

The senior special writer, Carl Bialik, of The Wall Street Journal, who writes a section called “The Numbers Guy”, is one of my favorite reads. As I was wrapping up research for this book and thinking that I had included enough opinions about things without substantial evidence, I was delighted to find support from Carl for this section on “Masking an Intellectual Void.” On January 4, 2013, he wrote two articles entitled, “Don’t Let Math Pull the Wool Over Your Eyes,” and “Awed by Equations.” Those articles referenced two papers that gave support to my belief in the overuse of mathematics, and how readers of white papers generally were impressed with what they actually did not understand. Research was conducted using only the abstracts of two papers, one without math, and one with math; the catch being that the one with math was bogus, totally unrelated to the paper. Yet the highest percentage of participants who gave the highest rating to the abstract with added math, based on the participants’ educational degree, was as follows:

Math, Science, Technology      46 percent 

Humanities, Social Science     62 percent 

Medicine            64 percent 

Other           73 percent 

I think this shows that those who had a high probability of not understanding the math gave the paper with the bogus math a higher rating, while those who possibly did understand the math did not.

This is just my lame attempt at humor. The financial academics have almost universally used partial differential equations in their white papers; I think, more often than not just to hide an intellectual void. Many times, the difficult math is not necessary, but by including it, they know most will never be able to question their work. Sad, indeed! Incidentally, the equation can be simplified to 1 + 1 = 2.

Earnings Season

For decades, I have watched the parade of earnings announcements and how the media hangs on each one as if it actually had some value other than filling dead air. Figure 5.1 shows the stock price of Amazon back in the 2000-2001 bear market. The annotations are from actual earnings forecasts from analysts. If you yell “buy” all the way down, the odds are good that you will eventually be correct. Hopefully, you will still have some money.

“In our view, security analysts as a whole cannot estimate the future earnings pattern of one or more growth stocks with sufficient accuracy to provide a firm basis for valuation in the majority of cases.” — Benjamin Graham

It seems that the media is so focused on earnings reports that they forget to report the actual earnings. Instead, their focus is on where the earnings came in relative to the analysts’ estimate. After beating up on experts, it is hard to imagine that someone would actually make an investment decision based on an analyst’s (expert) guess as to what earnings should be. These analysts are constantly wined and dined by the companies they analyze, so, in general, I think they are biased, and almost always to the upside. In fact, I think most are really just trend followers, in that they are always forecasting better earnings as markets rise and, once a market rolls over and begins to decline, they eventually begin to forecast lower earnings.

Figure 5.1

When asked what investors’ greatest problems are, the late Peter Bernstein said, “Extrapolation! They believe the recent past is how the future will be.”

Are Financial Advisors Worth 1% of AUM (Assets Under Management)?

“People who need advice are least likely to take it.” — Unknown

Many asset managers hold entirely too many stocks and have become closet benchmark trackers. If they beat their benchmark, they call it alpha, and when they do not beat their benchmark, they call it tracking error. If your investment manager rebalances your portfolio periodically based on a few questions that he required you to answer when setting up the account, here are some things to think about. Usually, the risk tolerance and objective questionnaire is much more involved, but here are two questions typically asked:

  1. What percentage of current income will you need when you retire?
  2. On a scale from 1 to 7, what is your risk tolerance?

Do you honestly believe a person knows the answers to those questions? No way! They will try to answer based on what the advisor has told or suggested to them. The law requires this type of action for advisors, so pick an advisor you think will actually meet your needs and, if you are unsure, can point you in the right direction.

Economists Are Good at Predicting the Market

“The economy depends about as much on economists as the weather does on weather forecasters.” — Jean Paul Kauffman

Just to put this into perspective, the stock market is a component of the index of leading indicators. If the stock market is a good leading indicator of the economy, why ask an economist what the market is going to do? Yet they are paraded daily across the financial media, making forecasts about the markets, political policy, fiscal policy, monetary events, and, yes, occasionally about the economy. When they are correct, they won’t let you forget it; when they are wrong, no one remembers. Many economists are good when dealing with the economy, but rarely are they good when they stray into other areas.

News Is Noise

Here is a humorous attempt to portray some of the daily noise often referred to as news. On Wall Street today, news of lower interest rates sent the stock market up, but then the expectation that these rates would be inflationary sent the market down, until the realization that lower rates might stimulate the sluggish economy pushed the market up, before it ultimately went down on fears that an overheated economy would lead to once again an imposition of higher interest rates.

Rolf Dobelli, writing for The Guardian, on April 12, 2013, in an article entitled “News is bad for you—and giving up reading it will make you happier,” listed these problems with news:

  • News misleads.
  • News is irrelevant.
  • News has no explanatory power.
  • News is toxic to your body.
  • News increases cognitive errors.
  • News inhibits thinking.
  • News works like a drug.
  • News wastes time.
  • News makes us passive.
  • News kills creativity.

He claims he has gone without news for four years and says it isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. Since he wrote for a news organization, I would imagine he is also looking for work.

“If you can distinguish between good advice and bad advice, then you don’t need advice.” — VanRoy’s Second Law

When asked at seminars what is the single most important concept to understand when investing, I respond simply that it is to know thyself. The human mind is a horrible investor, and the use of heuristics does not help. The next chapter deals with human behavior as it relates to the market.


Thanks for reading this far. I intend to publish one article in this series every week. Can’t wait? The book is for sale here.

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Stock-market rally faces Fed, tech earnings and jobs data in make-or-break week

Stock-market investors may take their cues from a series of important events in the week ahead, including the Federal Reserve’s monetary-policy meeting, a closely-watched December employment report and an onslaught of earnings from megacap technology names, which all promise insight into the state of the economy and interest-rate outlook. 

The benchmark S&P 500 index
SPX
Thursday closed at a record high for five straight trading days, the longest streak of its kind since November 2021. The index finished slightly lower on Friday, but clinched weekly gains of 1.1%, while the Nasdaq Composite
COMP
advanced 1% and the blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA
gained 0.7% for the week, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

“What we’re seeing is the market participants are still playing catch-up from 2023, putting money on the sidelines to work,” said Robert Schein, chief investment officer at Blanke Schein Wealth Management.

“Wall Street is still back at it trying to eke out gains as quickly as possible, so it’s very short-term oriented until we get big market-moving events,” he said, adding that one of the events could well be “a disappointing Fed speech.”

Fed’s Powell has good reasons to push back on rate cuts

Expectations that the Fed would begin easing monetary policy as early as March after its fastest tightening cycle in four decades have helped fuel a rally in U.S. stock- and bond-markets. Investors now mostly expect five or six quarter-point rate cuts by December, bringing the fed-funds rate down to around 4-4.25% from the current range of 5.25-5.5%, according to the CME FedWatch Tool. 

See: Economic growth underlined by fourth-quarter GDP reinforces Fed’s cautious approach to rate cuts

While no interest-rate change is expected for the central bank’s first policy meeting this year, some market analysts think comments from Fed Chair Jerome Powell during his news conference on Wednesday are likely to shift the market’s expectations and push back against forecasts of a March cut. 

Thierry Wizman, global FX and interest rates strategist at Macquarie, said a stock-market rally, “too-dovish” signals from the Fed’s December meeting, a still-resilient labor market and escalating Middle East conflicts may indicate that Powell has to keep the “[monetary] tightening bias” next week. 

The rally in the stock market could “conceivably backfire” by virtue of a loosening of financial conditions, while the labor market has not weakened to the extent that the Fed officials would have hoped, Wizman told MarketWatch in a phone interview on Friday.

Further complicating things, fears that inflation could spike again in light of the conflict in the Middle East and Red Sea could reinforce Fed’s cautious approach to rate cuts, he said. 

See: Oil traders aren’t panicking over Middle East shipping attacks. Here’s why.

Meanwhile, a shift to “neutral bias” doesn’t automatically mean that the Fed will cut the policy rate soon since the Fed still needs to go to “easing bias” before actually trimming rates, Wizman said. “I think the market gets too dovish and does not realize the Fed has very, very good reasons to push this [the first rate cut] out to June.” 

Markets are ‘laser-focused’ on January employment report

Labor-market data could also sway U.S. financial markets in the week ahead, serving as the “big swing factor” for the economy, said Patrick Ryan, head of multi-asset solutions at Madison Investments. 

Investors have been looking for clear signs of a slowing labor market that could prompt the central bank to start cutting rates as early as March. That bet may be tested as soon as Friday with the release of nonfarm payroll data for January.

Economists polled by The Wall Street Journal estimate that U.S. employers added 180,000 jobs in January, down from a surprisingly strong 216,000 in the final month of 2023. The unemployment rate is expected to tick up to 3.8% from 3.7% in the prior month, keeping it near a half century low. Wage gains are forecast to cool a bit to 0.3% in January after a solid 0.4% gain in December. 

“That’s going to have everyone laser-focused,” Ryan told MarketWatch via phone on Thursday. “Anything that shows you real weakness in the labor market is going to question if the equity market is willing to trade at 20 plus times (earnings) this year.” The S&P 500 is trading at 20.2 times earnings as of Friday afternoon, according to FactSet data. 

Six of ‘Magnificent 7’ may continue to drive S&P 500 earnings higher

This coming week is also packed with earnings from some of the big tech names that have fueled the stock-market rally since last year. 

Five of the so-called Magnificent 7 technology companies will provide earnings starting from next Tuesday when Alphabet Inc.
GOOG,
+0.10%

and Microsoft Corp.
MSFT,
-0.23%

take center stage, followed by results from Apple Inc.
AAPL,
-0.90%
,
Amazon.com
AMZN,
+0.87%

and Meta Platforms
META,
+0.24%

on Thursday. 

Of the remaining two members of the “Magnificent 7,” Tesla Inc.
TSLA,
+0.34%

has reported earlier this week with its results “massively disappointing” Wall Street, while Nvidia Corp.’s
NVDA,
-0.95%

results will be coming out at the end of February.

See: Here’s why Nvidia, Microsoft and other ‘Magnificent Seven’ stocks are back on top in 2024

A number of the companies in the “Magnificent 7” have seen their stock prices hit record-high levels in recent weeks, which could help to drive the value of the S&P 500 higher, said John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet Research. He also said these stocks are projected to drive earnings higher for the benchmark index in the fourth quarter of 2023.

In One Chart: Tech leads stock market’s January rally by wide margin. Watch out for February.

In aggregate, Nvidia, Alphabet, Amazon.com, Apple, Meta Platforms, and Microsoft are expected to report year-over-year earnings growth of 53.7% for the fourth quarter of last year, while excluding these six companies, the blended earnings decline for the remaining 494 companies in the S&P 500 would be 10.5%, Butters wrote in a Friday client note.

“Overall, the blended earnings decline for the entire S&P 500 for Q4 2023 is 1.4%,” he said. 

Check out! On Watch by MarketWatch, a weekly podcast about the financial news we’re all watching — and how that’s affecting the economy and your wallet. MarketWatch’s Jeremy Owens trains his eye on what’s driving markets and offers insights that will help you make more informed money decisions. Subscribe on Spotify and Apple.  

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Nike sinks 12% after it slashes sales outlook, unveils $2 billion in cost cuts

Nike on Thursday unveiled plans to cut costs by about $2 billion over the next three years as it lowered its sales outlook.

The stock fell about 12% in premarket trading Friday. Nike shares were up 4.7% so far this year through Thursday’s close, lagging far behind the S&P 500’s gains for the year. Retailer Foot Locker, which has leaned heavily on Nike products, fell about 8% in extended trading.

Nike now expects full-year reported revenue to grow approximately 1%, compared to a prior outlook of up mid-single digits. In the current quarter, which includes the second half of the holiday shopping season, Nike expects reported revenue to be slightly negative as it laps tough prior year comparisons, and sales to be up low single digits in the fourth quarter.

“Last quarter as I provided guidance, I highlighted a number of risks in our operating environment, including the effects of a stronger U.S. dollar on foreign currency translation, consumer demand over the holiday season and our second half wholesale order books. Looking forward, the impact of these risks is becoming clearer,” finance chief Matthew Friend said on a call with analysts.

“This new outlook reflects increased macro headwinds, particularly in Greater China and EMEA. Adjusted digital growth plans are based on recent digital traffic softness and higher marketplace promotions, life cycle management of key product franchises and a stronger U.S. dollar that has negatively impacted second-half reported revenue versus 90 days ago.”

The company still expects gross margins to expand between 1.4 and 1.6 percentage points. Excluding restructuring charges, it expects to deliver on its full-year earnings outlook.

As part of its plan to cut costs, Nike said it’s looking to simplify its product assortment, increase automation and its use of technology, streamline the overall organization by reducing management layers and leverage its scale “to drive greater efficiency.”

It plans to reinvest the savings it gets from those initiatives into fueling future growth, accelerating innovation and driving long-term profitability.

“As we look ahead to a softer second-half revenue outlook, we remain focused on strong gross margin execution and disciplined cost management,Friend said in a press release.

The plan will cost the company between $400 million and $450 million in pretax restructuring charges that will largely come to fruition in Nike’s current quarter. Those costs are mostly related to employee severance costs, Nike said.

Earlier this month, The Oregonian reported that Nike had been quietly laying off employees over the past several weeks and had signaled that it was planning for a broader restructuring. A series of divisions saw cuts, including recruitment, sourcing, brand, engineering, human resources and innovation, the outlet reported.

The company didn’t immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on The Oregonian’s report.

During Nike’s fiscal second quarter, it posted a strong earnings beat, indicating its cost-savings initiatives were already underway. But, for the second quarter in a row, it fell short of sales estimates, which is the first time Nike has seen consecutive quarters of revenue misses since 2016.

Here’s how the sneaker giant performed compared to what Wall Street was anticipating, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: $1.03 vs. 85 cents expected
  • Revenue: $13.39 billion vs. $13.43 billion expected

The company reported net income for the three-month period that ended Nov. 30 was $1.58 billion, or $1.03 per share, compared to $1.33 billion, or 85 cents per share, a year earlier.

Sales rose about 1% to $13.39 billion, from $13.32 billion a year earlier.

Nike is considered a leader among industry peers such as Lululemon, Adidas and Under Armour, but its profits have been under pressure and it has been in the middle of a strategy shift that has seen it rekindle its relationships with wholesalers including Macy’s and Designer Brands, the parent company of DSW.

Focus on margins

For the past six quarters, Nike’s gross margin has declined compared to the prior-year period, but the story turned around on Thursday. Nike’s gross margin increased 1.7 percentage points to 44.6%, slightly ahead of estimates, according to StreetAccount.

This time last year, Nike’s inventories were up a staggering 43% and the retailer was in the middle of an aggressive liquidation strategy to clear out old styles and make way for new ones, which weighed heavily on its margins. Several quarters later, however, Nike is in a far better inventory position, which is a boon for margins.

During the quarter, inventories were down 14% to $8 billion.

Nike’s gross margin turnaround came as the retail environment overall has been flooded with steep promotions and discounts as retailers struggle to convince inflation-weary consumers to pay full price. In September when Nike reported fiscal first-quarter earnings, finance chief Friend said Nike was “cautiously planning for modest markdown improvements” given the overall promotional environment.

While the company repeatedly pointed out the overall promotional environment, it said the average sales price of footwear and apparel were up during the quarter and the average selling price grew across channels with higher-priced products proving particularly “resilient.”

The company attributed the gross margin uptick to “strategic pricing actions and lower ocean freight rates,” saying it was partially offset by unfavorable foreign exchange rates and higher product input costs.

As one of the last retailers to report earnings before the December holidays, investors are eager to hear good news when it comes to Nike’s expectations for the crucial shopping season. When many retailers issued holiday-quarter guidance in November, the commentary was largely tepid and cautious as companies looked to under promise and over deliver in an increasingly uncertain macro environment.

Nike struck a note that hit somewhere in the middle. Its sales miss and focus on cost cuts signal larger demand issues, but CEO John Donahoe was upbeat when discussing Black Friday week sales.

“We outpaced the industry, driving growth of close to 10%, Nike digital had its strongest Black Friday week ever and a record number of consumers shopped in our stores over the long Thanksgiving weekend,” said Donahoe.

China is another key part of the Nike story. As the region emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread lockdowns, China’s economic recovery has so far been a mixed bag. In November, retail sales climbed 10.1% in the region.

It was the fastest pace of growth since May, but those numbers were up against easy comparisons and the growth was largely driven by car sales and restaurants, according to a research note from Goldman Sachs.

During the quarter, China sales came in at $1.86 billion, which fell short of the $1.95 billion analysts had expected, according to StreetAccount. Sales in Europe, the Middle East and Africa also fell short of estimates, but revenue came in ahead in the North America, Asia-Pacific and Latin America markets, according to StreetAccount.

Read the full earnings release here.

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Jim Cramer’s top 10 things to watch in the stock market Friday

My top 10 things to watch Friday, Nov. 3

1. U.S. stocks climb higher in premarket trading Friday, with S&P 500 futures up 0.46% after rising nearly 5% over the previous four sessions. Equities remain on track for their biggest weekly gain of the year. Government bonds also continue to rally this week, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury pulling back to around 4.5%. Oil prices tick up 0.78%, bringing West Texas Intermediate crude to just above $83 a barrel.

2. U.S. employment growth slows in October, with the economy adding just 150,000 jobs, according to the Labor Department’s monthly nonfarm payrolls report. That compares with September’s revised gain of 297,000 jobs and a Dow Jones estimate for October of 170,000 jobs. The news could take further pressure off the Federal Reserve in its ongoing battle to bring down inflation through higher interest rates.

3. Club holding Apple (AAPL) delivers an uneven fiscal fourth-quarter, with shares falling on lower-than-expected guidance for the current quarter. Analysts are using the results to reset expectations and lower price targets. Apple stock is down 1.7% in premarket trading, at $174.57 a share.

4. Semiconductor firm Skyworks Solutions (SWKS) reports a weak quarter as a result of Apple’s slowdown, prompting a slate of price-target reductions Friday. Barclays lowers its price target on the stock to $90 a share, down from $115, while maintaining an overweight rating on shares.

5. The takeaway from Club holding Starbucks‘ (SBUX) fiscal fourth-quarter beat is that the coffee maker needs so many more stores both in the U.S. and in China, while it’s barely begun to tackle India. Baird on Friday raises its price target on Starbucks to $110 a share, up from $100, while reiterating a neutral rating.

6. Barclays on Friday raises its price target on Club name Eli Lilly (LLY) to $630 a share, up from $590, while maintaining an overweight rating on the stock. The call seems like a good idea after Eli Lilly delivered solid quarterly results on the back of its blockbuster drug Mounjaro.

7. Shares of cybersecurity firm Fortinet (FTNT) plunge nearly 20% in early trading after its third-quarter results miss on analyst expectations, while providing a weak outlook for the current quarter. Multiple Wall Street firms downgrade Fortinet Friday on the weak quarter and signs secure networking is seeing slower growth.

8. Barclays lowers it price target on Clorox (CLX) to $115 a share, down from $118, while maintaining an underweight rating on the stock — and that seems harsh. The firm calls Clorox’s reduced outlook “prudent given the uncertainty ahead.” Clorox warned last month that an August cyber attack had significantly weighed on sales and profits.

9. KeyBanc upgrades Uber Technologies (UBER) to overweight from a neutral-equivalent rating, with a $60-per-share price target. The firm says Uber’s expense discipline should continue to drive earnings and free cash flow, while advertising “provides a lever to keep prices low to drive volumes.” Uber is set to report third-quarter results on Nov. 7.

10. Gordon Haskett upgrades Ross Stores (ROST) to buy from accumulate, with a $135-per-share price target. The firm says its third-quarter proprietary store manager survey “paints a positive picture” for both Ross and Club name TJX Companies (TJX).

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These 10 portfolio names outperformed the stock market amid the October decline

Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S., October 26, 2023. 

Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters

Despite a downbeat month for stocks and mounting macroeconomic uncertainty, several Club names outperformed the market in October — and landed in the green.  

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