Stocks held back by weak earnings

Stocks were weighed down by disappointing quarterly results Wednesday. A subscriber slump at AT&T and a weak profit forecast from Procter & Gamble kept stocks down.

Richard Drew/AP
Trader Christopher Lotito, center, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday. Stocks are taking their cue from a heavy dose of earnings this week.

Disappointing quarterly results, including a subscriber slump at AT&T and a weak profit forecast from Procter & Gamble, held back the stockmarket Wednesday.

The results came on a day when several companies reported a mixed picture for the first quarter. The Dow Jones industrial average edged down 0.2 percent, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index was barely up— just 0.1.

The prices of oil and gold rose and the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note was unchanged.

Investors are taking their cue from a heavy dose of earnings this week.

P&G, the maker of Tide detergent and Gillette razors, dropped 5.1 percent to $77.77 Wednesday after its profit forecast missed expectations from financial analysts who follow the company. Uneven demand for the company's new products is weighing on its prospects.

AT&T dropped 5.2 percent to $36.97 after it lost phone subscribers from its contract-based plans in its latest quarter. It's a sign that industry growth is slowing now that most American have smartphones.

Investors were also disappointed by sales growth at biotech giant Amgen and flat revenues at drugmaker Eli Lilly, though companies such as Boeing and General Dynamics tempered the mood with strong quarterly profits.

So far, 175 of the companies in the S&P 500, or 35 percent, have reported quarterly earnings. Two-thirds of the Dow's members have reported.

While the majority of them have reported better-than-expected profits, their sales haven't been as strong, suggesting they are struggling to grow.

Sixty-nine percent of companies in the S&P 500 have beaten expectations, better than the 10-year average of 62 percent, according to S&P Capital IQ. However, only 39 percent have beaten revenue forecasts.

Looking ahead, the outlook dims. Of the 35 companies that have given earnings forecasts for the second quarter, 28 are "negative," according to S&P Capital IQ, with only four "positive" and three "in-line."

"We think that most managements are appropriately cautious in their outlooks, because it's very possible that the second-quarter will continue to slow," said Jim Russell, a regional investment director at U.S. Bank. "We're watching with cautious optimism that this is a second-quarter-only soft patch in the economic data."

A report Wednesday that orders for long-lasting U.S. factory goods fell more than economists expected added to concerns that global growth is slowing.

The Commerce Department said orders for durable goods declined 5.7 percent in March following a 4.3 percent gain the previous month. February's figure was also revised lower.

The Dow was down 30 points at 14,689 as of 3:25 p.m. Eastern time. The S&P 500 index rose two points to 1,581. The Nasdaq composite was up four points, or 0.1 percent, at 3,272.

Last week, stocks logged their biggest weekly drop in five months after growth in China, the world's second-biggest economy, slowed and commodity prices plunged. Weaker hiring and manufacturing growth have also weighed on thestock market.

The market's gains in April have been modest after a first-quarter surge that pushed both the Dow and the S&P 500 to record highs. The Dow is up just 0.8 percent in April while the S&P 500 has gained 0.6 percent.

During the first three months of the year, the Dow and the S&P 500 averaged monthly gains of more than 3 percent, driven by optimism that the housing and job markets were recovering and that company earnings would continue to climb.

Still, companies are making money in the first quarter and are on track to grow earnings by an average of almost 3 percent, according to S&P Capital IQ.

"Overall, I'm really quite comforted," said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds. "It's not an easy environment in which to make money but, companies are finding ways in which to hold costs in line and grow earnings."

Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, was among the gainers Wednesday, advancing 7.4 percent to $68.91. Yum reported earnings late Tuesday that exceeded the expectations of financial analysts.

General Dynamic, the aerospace and defense company, also surged after posting a profit that was better than expected. The stock jumped 6.7 percent to $71.59.

Boeing climbed 3.6 percent to $91.27 after the airplane maker said its first-quarter net income rose 20 percent despite problems with the 787 Dreamliner. The company said it would still meet its financial and delivery targets this year.

In government bond trading, the yield on the 10-year Treasury note was little changed at 1.71 percent. The yield fell to 1.69 percent last week, close to its lowest of the year.

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