Stocks edge higher ahead of earnings season; banks in focus

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Stocks edged higher in afternoon trading Monday ahead of a wave of earnings reports from big U.S. companies coming out this week.

The S&P 500 index was up 0.2% as of 12:47 p.m. Eastern. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 89 points, or 0.3%, to 34,959 and the Nasdaq composite rose less than 0.1%. On Friday, the S&P 500 rose 1.1% to a fresh record, rebounding from the previous day’s loss.

Stocks in the benchmark S&P 500 were split between gainers and losers. Bank stocks were solidly higher, while industrial stocks and a mix of companies selling household goods fell. Trading was muted overall, with a few stocks making big moves on little news.

L Brands jumped 4.7% after the company’s board approved splitting the Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works units into two separate companies. Virgin Galactic fell 14.7% followed up a successful spaceflight with plans to sell up to $500 million in stock.

Earnings season kicks off this week. The big Wall Street banks report their results starting Tuesday starting with JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. Also reporting this week will be Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo. A handful of other big companies report this week, including Delta Air Lines, PepsiCo and UnitedHealth Group.

Expectations are high this quarter for publicly traded companies. The pandemic is waning, and all of the United States effectively reopened again in the last quarter as vaccine availability became widespread. Investors will be looking to see not only what sort of profits these companies brought in the last three months, but also what their outlook is now that things are normalizing.

Corporate earnings are expected to be up 64% from a year earlier, according to FactSet. That would be the biggest year-over-year growth since 2009, when corporate profits started recovering from the Great Recession.

Ultimately investors are going to need these companies to deliver this season. Stocks have risen sharply in the past year on the backs of expectations that corporate profits would rebound once the pandemic ends. Without strong profits, it will be increasingly difficult for investors to justify these high stock prices and record market valuations.

“This needs to be more of a confirmation process this earnings season,” said Scott Wren.

Investors are closely watching what companies say about the future in the latest round of earnings, now that the economy is shaking off the worst impact from the pandemic and companies have a clearer view ahead.

“The market has an expectation for the economy and interest rates and it’s a matter of whether company’s are going to acknowledge this or are they going to be cautious,” Wren said. “The market would like to see some certainty.”

As investors keep an eye on corporate earnings, there are also lingering worries about the highly contagious delta coronavirus variant that is spreading quickly across much of the world. Places in the U.S. being hit particularly hard by the delta variant include the South, where vaccine hesitancy and resistance is more common. There are some worries that these areas may have to reimpose restrictions.

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