STOCK WATCH


Finding Clues When the Market Dozes

Jeffrey R. Kosnett

Use sleepy times in the market to think about what you own and what you might want to buy. Here are some things to consider.



This is a slow week on Wall Street. Few companies you know well are reporting earnings -- that won't start until next week, and earnings announcements will really start flying in July. So, how should you use this quiet time? In my view, the break in the earnings news cycle is a great time for doing your homework.

Consider one company that did report earnings this week: Best Buy (symbol BBY). It provides a good example of how you can glean earnings trends before the official announcement.

Best Buy, which issued earnings on June 19, wasn't at its best. Profits for the quarter that ended June 2 came in at 39 cents a share; analysts were forecasting from 45 cents to 60 cents a share. Best Buy sold plenty of low-priced laptops, but not enough higher-profit home theaters and high-end appliances to drive earnings higher. So the stock fell 6% on June 19, to $45.18. Best Buy shares are now down 8% for 2007.

Best Buy didn't telegraph its weak June release in the Web presentation it made to shareholders in April (it's still available in the Best Buy archives), but it did make the stock sound like an iffy proposition. Best Buy reported in April that its profit margin was eroding because of "change in the mix of business." That meant, in a few words, that too much revenue growth was coming in lower-profit product categories and not enough was coming in high-end departments such as Magnolia Home Theater and Pacific Sales (kitchen and bath products).

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Best Buy shares won't perform any better than Wal-Mart's have been -- meaning not very well -- until customers expand their purchases beyond iPods, CDs, DVDs and $700 notebook computers. You do not have to be a trained analyst, a company insider or a stock geek to understand this. Best Buy's own public pronouncements say so.

If you own any individual stocks that are significant percentages of your portfolio (more than 5%), note when the next earnings release is due. The company can't say much in the days leading up to the announcement, but you're not in the dark. Check the company's Web site for recent webcasts to investor forums or research conferences. You'll get a still-fresh idea of what the bosses think and be better informed on how news events such as interest-rate moves or currency fluctuations might affect the stock.

Beyond a company's individual circumstances, you should also consider overall economic or market factors that will impact a stock. Some issues, such as the waning possibility of lower interest rates, continue to be critical for many stocks. That's because mergers, buyouts and the expectation of more such activity have been key factors in boosting share prices, and those deals often stand or fall on cheap credit.

If you own shares of a bank, you can tolerate rising long-term interest rates because that expands the narrow gaps between short-term and long-term rates. Those "spreads" are a big driver of a bank's profits. But if you hold housing or housing-related stocks, such as companies in lumber and building materials, you'd prefer to see lower interest rates.

And fuel prices are important if you invest in something like Winnebago (WGO). The maker of recreational vehicles reported disappointing numbers on June 15 for the quarter that ended May 26, but business should pick up if the price of gasoline levels off below $3 a gallon. Winnebago's shares, which closed at $30.60 before the earnings release, finished at $29.22 on June 19. So the stock is down, but it could've been worse considering that Winnebago's quarterly earnings of 35 cents were far below analysts' average forecast of 49 cents. The reaction suggests that the pros are a little disappointed, but not overly negative, and establishes the stock as a favorite to rebound sharply on moderately good news. If I had to bet, I'd wager that Winnebago handily outperforms Best Buy through next June.




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