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As Earnings Season Heads Into Its Second Week, Here Are The Companies You'll Wan

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January 15, 2004

By Paul R. La Monica, Alexandra Twin and Justin Lahart

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The company results we've seen so far have been good, but in many cases it appears that investors expected much, much more.

Take Intel, for example. Wednesday night it beat analysts' fourth-quarter earnings expectations by a solid nickel -- a blockbuster report. Yet no sooner did the news come out than investors started bidding the chipmaker's stock lower.

And so it went generally as earnings season kicked into gear. Everything's dandy, but shares are heading down.

"You're seeing a lot of sell on the news," said Todd Clark, managing director of listed trading at Wells Fargo Securities.

Clark reckons that, on an individual stock basis, that trend may continue in the weeks to come. The overall market may still be able to eke out gains, however, thanks to the backdrop of a strong economy.

It's also possible that, to some extent, investors have lowered their high-falutin' expectations for profits, making room for upside surprises.

Companies in this report: Citigroup; 3M; Motorola; AT&T; Microsoft; Callaway Golf; Caterpillar.

Citigroup, Tuesday a.m.

It may be the country's (and, by many measures, the world's) biggest bank, but over the past few years Citigroup has been rolling away from punches like a welterweight.

The big bank didn't take nearly the hit that its biggest rival, J.P. Morgan Chase, did from the likes of Enron and Argentina. Although Jack Grubman, a former telecom analyst at its Smith Barney unit, was a central exhibit in New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's investigation of Wall Street, the scandal never appeared to draw the bank's focus away from its day-to-day business.

Most important, Citi's big consumer franchises allowed it to weather Corporate America's slowdown well. An enviable situation -- and a big reason No. 2 bank J.P. Morgan Chase just announced plans to merge with Bank One.

The question now is whether the big focus on the consumer will be a hindrance. There are signs recently that the household sector is beginning to slow -- many people are just too tapped out by debt after all the generous incentives to buy that have been pushed at them over the past three years -- and most Wall Street economists (including Citigroup's) believe that consumer spending growth will lag overall economic growth over the next year.

If that's true, Citi's investment banking and commercial lending operations are going to have to carry the ball in 2004. When it reports Tuesday, investors are going to want to know if the bank is geared for that transition. And, of course, how it plans to compete with the combined bank that results from Morgan Chase's merger with Bank One.

Why it matters: Everybody expects the U.S. consumer to weaken over the course of 2004; the question is how much. The key to that may be how well households are able to cope with high levels of debt. If the consumer-debt dynamic falters, Citi could be the canary in the coal mine.

First Call forecast: 90 cents per share versus 47 cents a year ago.

3M, Tuesday a.m.

As with other companies that benefit from a fast-growing economy, a weak dollar and a broad-based stock market recovery, 3M has been on a roll. The stock rallied 38 percent last year and has been trading near its 52-week high lately.

In the third-quarter, 3M reported earnings of 83 cents per share, more than the 79 cents analysts surveyed by First Call were expecting and up from a year earlier, bolstered by the recovery and the impact of the weak dollar.

The fourth quarter looks to be shaping well too, with both 3M and the analyst community having bolstered their earnings per share estimates and ratings during the quarter. Recently, the company announced a $1.5 billion stock repurchase program for 2004.

The dollar's weakness has been a big part of 3M's recent profits, with 50 percent of the company's business coming from overseas, leaving some analysts worried about how a turnaround in the dollar might hurt future results. Additionally, the company has relied a lot on cost cutting in the past to boost revenue. 3M's statement will need to address these concerns.

Why it matters: The scope of its industrial products and the global nature of its business make 3M one of the key cyclical bellwethers out there. The company stands as something of a proxy for the whole economy. What it has to say about the health of its business over the next few quarters could serve to reinforce or poke holes in bets on continued sustained economic growth.

First Call forecast: 76 cents per share, up from 65 cents a year earlier.

Motorola, Tuesday p.m.

There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Ed Zander. The widely praised former president of Sun Microsystems took over as chairman and CEO of Motorola this month and he inherited a company with many challenges ahead.

Motorola, the second largest maker of cell phones, has had some high-profile product problems of late. Because of component problems, the company was not able to ship as many high-end camera phones to the U.S. and European markets for the crucial holiday shopping season.

Rivals such as Samsung, Siemens and LG Electronics are nipping at Motorola's heels. And cell phone leader Nokia already pre-announced spectacular fourth quarter results, which puts pressure on Motorola to post similarly strong results.

If all that weren't enough to deal with, Motorola also recently announced that it is going to try and cash in on the flat-panel TV craze. In addition, the company is trying to spin-off its money-losing semiconductor business and some on Wall Street are calling for Zander to shed other troubled units, such as its cable set-top box division. Whew!

Why it matters: The market already knows that Nokia had a happy holiday. Other networking equipment companies have had reason to smile lately as well, due to high-profile contract wins.

If Motorola also can report a strong quarter and give some upbeat guidance, then that would give Wall Street more reason to believe that a telecom equipment turnaround is for real and is not limited solely to a handful of strong companies.

First Call forecast: 13 cents a share, versus 13 cents a year ago.

AT&T, Thursday a.m.

New Year's Day marked the 20th anniversary of the AT&T break-up by the federal government. And to borrow a campaign phrase from the guy in the Oval Office back in 1984, Ma Bell is not better off now than it was 20 years ago.

The long-distance business, AT&T's bread and butter, is in systemic decline. AT&T faces competition not only from its Baby Bell progeny but also from wireless phone carriers, giant cable companies and upstarts like Vonage and 8X8 that are selling Internet-based phone services.

AT&T, the second worst performing stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average last year, has to show Wall Street that it has a strategy to get sales and earnings growth back on track. Ma Bell hopes to muscle in on the Bells' turf with attractive local phone offerings as well as its own voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service.

But analysts believe AT&T's best days are behind it. The current long-term earnings growth estimate according to Thomson First Call is actually not a growth estimate. Analysts expect earnings to decline at an average clip of 13 percent annually for the next few years.

Why it matters: Has the telecom sector really bottomed? Although AT&T is not as important a company as it used to be, its results and outlook will help Wall Street answer this question. Baby Bell Verizon plans to spend aggressively on network upgrades over the next few years but it's still unclear whether or not Verizon is the anomaly in telecom.

And AT&T, after all, is still a Dow stock. That has to count for something, we guess.

First Call forecast: 41 cents a share, versus a loss of 79 cents a year ago.

Microsoft, Thursday p.m.

2003 was a year of transition and turmoil for Microsoft.

The company began the year by announcing it would pay a dividend, an almost unheard of act for tech companies. It later raised that dividend, too. And in June, the software giant announced another tech no-no, saying that it would no longer give employees stock options.

These decisions indicated to some that Microsoft is maturing and should no longer be considered a growth company. Adding to that perception is, well, the fact that growth is slowing -- analysts expect Microsoft to post earnings gains of about 9 percent this fiscal year and next.

Microsoft's stock didn't take part in last year's tech rally, rising only 7 percent. And the company had some major problems last year that need to be addressed in order for the stock to move higher this year.

There were growing concerns about how vulnerable its Windows operating system is to viruses, worms and other hacker attacks. The company has stressed that security will be a priority this year and investors will want to hear more about steps Microsoft is taking when it reports its latest earnings.

In addition, the open-source operating system Linux is gaining momentum and Wall Street will want to hear more about how the company plans to combat this threat.

Why it matters: Microsoft is the largest software company in the world, and this year, many on Wall Street expect the sector to outperform other areas of high-tech, such as chips and hardware companies.

But so far this earnings season, results from software companies have been a mixed bag. Siebel Systems said that the IT spending environment was improving and lifted its guidance. But SAP warned that revenues would be below Wall Street's forecasts.

Microsoft's results, particularly since it would benefit from both strong consumer and corporate spending on tech, will help paint a better picture of what demand for software will look like in 2004.

First Call forecast: 30 cents a share, versus 27 cents a year ago.

Callaway Golf, Thursday p.m.

When the rich get richer, they go and play golf.

And so, after hitting bogeys for few years, Callaway Golf has again found its swing. Even though the integration of ball maker Top-Flite into its business has been less than smooth, the maker of Big Bertha clubs has seen its shares rise 75 percent from their low point last March.

Investors' enthusiasm for the stock is understandable. The economy is on the rebound, the stock market is heading higher, executives are making deals (which invariably means more trips to the links) and year-end bonuses are back. Few companies track the fortunes of the well-heeled so well as Callaway.

Why it matters: Callaway is, as has been noted, a good proxy for how the world of luxury goods is doing. It is also, unfortunately, a good gauge of how faddish the market has gotten.

Callaway's customers are mostly the rich and mostly men. People who invest in stocks are also mostly the rich and mostly men. As a result, Callaway is a stock that gets a lot of "invest in what you know" traffic. It's had some incredibly big runs higher over the years as a result, and some equally incredible crashes.

When Callaway's stock is running higher its shareholders should be happy, obviously, but they should also worry that the overall market is getting a bit frothy.

First Call forecast: A loss of 29 cents a share (related to the Top-Flite acquisition) compared with a year-ago loss of 8 cents.

Caterpillar, Friday a.m.

In 2003, Caterpillar's experienced something of a metamorphosis. Buoyed by an earnings rebound and growing optimism over a recovering world economy, the machinery company's stock rose by 82 percent, leaving its all-time highs of 1999 far below.

The way things look now, good things could keep happening for Cat in 2004. Surging agricultural commodity prices should lift demand for farm equipment, while a weakened dollar gives the company an edge over its overseas competitors. Meantime, this past summer's big blackout may up give a boost to Cat's generator business and construction equipment sales could improve on the back of a recovery in the commercial real estate sector.

If there is a problem, it is that with a price-to-earnings ratio of around 27, Cat's shares have rarely been so expensive. The news will need to be good indeed to justify such a steep valuation. When it reports, investors will be paying close attention to the company's outlook for 2004 as well as what incoming CEO James Owen plans.

Why it matters: You want to know how businesses around the world are fairing, take a look at Caterpillar. The better the economy is, the more ditches they dig. The more ditches they dig, the more they buy from Cat.

First Call forecast: 94 cents a share versus 88 cents a year ago.

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