The Dow is tumbling again as earnings fears spark selling

Posted at 9:29 AM, Oct 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-23 11:31:33-04

Maybe Corporate America isn’t coming to Wall Street’s rescue after all.

The Dow dropped as many as 549 points, or 2%, on Tuesday after major US companies reported gloomy results and guidance. Disappointing numbers from Caterpillar and 3M reinforced ongoing concerns about how long blockbuster profits can last, especially given tariffs and rising costs.

The Dow was recently down about 400 points. The S&P 500 declined 1.8%, while the Nasdaq tumbled about 2.2%. The Nasdaq is at risk of closing in a technical correction — a 10% decline from prior highs.

“Investors are skittish about whether we’ve seen a peak in earnings,” said Mark Luschini, chief market strategist at Janney Capital Management. “It’s a schizophrenic market environment where things that didn’t matter suddenly do.”

It’s been a scary month for investors. The Dow has plunged about 1,500 points or 5.7%. That would be the index’s steepest monthly percentage decline since August 2015, a period when China fears were front-and-center.

October has been even worse for the Nasdaq. The index, down 9% this month, is on track for its worst month since November 2008 when it plummeted 11%. Tech stocks, once the bright spot in the market, continued to take the brunt of the selling on Tuesday. Netflix and Amazon slid about 3%, while Apple and Facebook declined 2%.

“The market is fragile,” said Rich Guerrini, CEO of PNC Investments. “But we’re telling our investors to relax. We’re in a correction. I think the market does have some legs left.”

The VIX volatility index soared 16% on Tuesday. The CNN Business Fear & Greed Index slipped further into “extreme fear.” A month ago the gauge of market sentiment was flashing “extreme greed.”

Wall Street was also spooked by extreme turbulence in China, the epicenter of the trade war. The Shanghai Composite dropped 2.3% overnight. The sell-off wipes out a chunk of Monday’s spike, the benchmark index’s best day since March 2016.

Earnings jitters

A number of large American companies with exposure to growing trade disputes reported their quarterly financial results Tuesday. Investors are worried that a slowing Chinese economy and an escalating trade war could pinch profits.

“The earnings are reflecting investors’ worst fears — and it’s exacerbating the selling,” said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors.

3M shares plunged 8% after the maker of Post-it Notes reported a dip in sales and weaker-than-expected profits. Worse, the Dow component downgraded its earnings forecast for the year.

Caterpillar, a closely-watched barometer of global growth, tumbled 9% as the maker of construction and mining equipment’s record third-quarter profit was overshadowed by disappointing guidance. Caterpillar, also a member of the Dow, warned of “higher material and freight costs, including tariffs.”

Harley-Davidson shares lost 5% after posting a 13% plunge in US sales due to “weakness” in the market. It was Harley’s biggest sales slump in eight years, Bloomberg Newsreported. The company, which plans to shift some manufacturing overseas in response to the threat of tariffs, also warned tariffs will increase costs by up to $48 million this year.

The results highlight lingering worries about whether the US economy and stock market can continue to grow rapidly.

“How long is this going to last?” asked Luschini. “Companies that only match earnings get punished. And ones that miss expectations get outright slayed.”

Bracing for a slowdown

But the news wasn’t all gloom-and-doom from Corporate America. McDonald’s shares spiked 7% after saying earnings and sales declined less than feared.

United Technologies, another major global company, raised its outlook. And Verizon said it grew profit and revenue more than investors anticipated.

Overall, Corporate America is still minting a ton of money thanks to the strong economy and tax cuts. S&P 500 companies are expected to grow per-share profits by nearly 20% this quarter, according to FactSet. And the vast majority of companies reporting results have beaten expectations.

However, investors are bracing for a slowdown. S&P 500 profits are expected to decelerate to 16.5% in the fourth quarter and 6.8% in the second quarter, according to FactSet.

“Everyone sees that the rate of earnings growth is slowing. That becomes problematic,” said State Street’s Arone.

Global growth concerns also weighed on the commodity markets. US oil prices tumbled nearly 3% to about $67.50 a barrel, pressuring energy stocks. Copper slid more than 1%.

Overseas markets were sharply lower Tuesday. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 3% in trading there, and Japan’s Nikkei fell almost as much. The Dax in Germany was down 2%.

-Matt Egan and Chris Isidore reporting for CNN Business

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