3 Bellwether Stocks to Watch

by Dan Burrows | July 8, 2013 1:22 pm

As the first component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average to report, aluminum giant Alcoa (AA[1]) always kicks off quarterly earnings season, but — operationally, at least — it’s not much of an economic bellwether these days.

For that, you have to look at other key reports in a smattering of other industries.

Sure, like iron and copper, aluminum has a wealth of industrial uses, so usually demand and pricing trends should be able to tell us something about the direction of the global economy. But aluminum prices have been under pressure for a long time now, as slower demand from China continues to outpace supply even as Alcoa and others shut down smelters.

As a result, Wall Street looks to Alcoa’s report more for news about how well Alcoa is slashing costs and generating cash — and less about the state of the world economy, which is already well-known to be sluggish to recessionary, depending on where you look.

To get a sense of how the U.S. and global economies are doing — and where they’re headed — you’re better off following reports from these three blue-chip names, ranging from banking to technology to railroads:

Wells Fargo

As the nation’s biggest mortgage lender, Wells Fargo (WFC[2]) offers insight into how the housing market is faring in face of much higher interest rates. Costs for home loans and refinancings have gone vertical in the past couple months. Whether that’s having an effect on demand is a huge question that the market needs to have answered.

It’s also important to see whether the rise in rates is helping WFC’s net interest margins — the difference between what it pays to borrow money and what it charges to loan money out. Ultra-low rates have been weighing on lenders’ profitability for years. If net interest margins start to tick up, that could help banks’ bottom lines.

Wells Fargo reports earnings on July 12.

International Business Machines

Tech is what’s known as an early-cycle sector, meaning it tends to move ahead of other industries when the economy is getting better — or getting worse. Part of that’s because when business is bad, companies cut back on spending for IT and related services. If your sales are slumping and you’re planning layoffs, there’s no reason to upgrade systems or buy employees brand-new workstations.

IBM (IBM[3]) provides services, software and hardware to many of the biggest companies in the world, including Walmart (WMT[4]) and Exxon Mobil (XOM[5]). It also derives about a quarter of its revenue from Europe. That makes Big Blue pretty finely attuned to corporate spending — something companies don’t do much of when times are tough.

IBM reports earnings on July 17.

Union Pacific

There’s a very good reason why Dow Theory focuses on the Dow Jones Transportation Average: Railroads, trucks and airlines form the circulatory system of the economy[6]. As S&P Dow Jones Indices says: “Transportation is the link between manufacturers of goods and the people that buy them.”

Union Pacific (UNP[7]) is the largest railroad operator in the U.S., hauling everything from agricultural products to chemicals to cars to coal. Indeed, there’s hardly an industry you can name that doesn’t rely on UNP at some point in its supply chain. As the old saying goes, “What the industrials make, the transports take.” That’s why Wall Street will be keen to hear what UNP has to say about the most recent quarter and the months ahead.

Union Pacific reports earnings on July 18.

As of this writing, Dan Burrows did not hold positions in any of the aforementioned securities.

Endnotes:
  1. AA: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=AA
  2. WFC: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=WFC
  3. IBM: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=IBM
  4. WMT: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=WMT
  5. XOM: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=XOM
  6. form the circulatory system of the economy: http://investorplace.com/2013/06/fed-full-steam-ahead-for-rail-stocks/
  7. UNP: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=UNP

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