Fourth-quarter earnings season began in a muted fashion, with Alcoa reporting a loss, as expected, on falling demand for aluminum that resulted in lower prices. The Federal Reserve reported it had a banner year of earnings in 2011, and wholesale inventories barely moved in November.
The Dow gained 69 points and climbed to its highest point since last July, with 23 of its 30 components higher; the S&P 500 rose 11; and the Nasdaq was higher by 25, with the index stringing together a four-day winning streak for the first time since early December. Advancers led decliners by 10 to 3 on the NYSE and 7 to 3 on the Nasdaq. The prices of Treasuries were mixed, with the 30-year strengthening and the 10-year weakening. Gold futures rose $23.40 to close at $1,631.50 an ounce, the highest close in four weeks, and the price of crude oil gained 93 cents to close at $102.24 a barrel.
In Earnings News:
- Kicking off fourth-quarter earnings season, Alcoa Inc. reported it lost $191 million, or 18 cents a share, a swing from a profit of $258 million, or 24 cents a share, in the same quarter one year ago. The loss was in line with expectations, and the company said it expects demand for aluminum to pick up in 2012. The aluminum manufacturer cited falling demand due to the economic uncertainty in Europe and declining manufacturing activity in China, which led to a 12% drop in aluminum prices during the fourth quarter. Its shares (AA) gained 0.1%.
In Other Business News:
- Wholesale inventories rose only 0.1% in November, according to the Commerce Department. That compares with a wholesale sales increase of 0.6% during the month, indicating businesses might need a round of restocking to keep up with higher-than-expected demand, which, in turn would lead to more economic growth.
- The Federal Reserve today announced that it transferred $76.9 billion in earnings to the U.S. Treasury in 2011 stemming from the massive holdings it acquired as it built up its balance sheet in the economic recession and recovery. In 2010, the Fed transferred $79.3 billion, a record amount.
- News that some imported orange juice, mostly from Brazil, contained a fungicide not allowed on U.S. oranges led the Food and Drug Administration to warn that it could order the juice pulled from store shelves. Frozen orange-juice concentrate futures jumped in response, with the most actively traded contract (March) at one point gaining 11% during the day.
- WebMD, the online health information company, announced today that it was no longer for sale, and that President and CEO Wayne Gattinella resigned, with no reason given publicly. The company is struggling to maintain ad revenue from pharmaceutical companies that are facing patent expirations on blockbuster drugs, such as Pfizer’s Lipitor. Its shares (WBMD) plummeted 28%.
Old tech, meet new tech. Ford Motor Co., one of the staples of Detroit's auto industry for more than 100 years, announced last week that it will open up a research and innovation facility in Silicon Valley early this year. The facility will be a part of Ford’s advanced engineering arm and will finally get around to developing the flying cars we were promised oh so many years ago. Actually, scratch that. The press release doesn’t mention flying cars.
Cars aren’t simply devices that take someone from Point A to Point B. (Which is good, because I’ve had cars that failed miserably even with that simple task. They were more like temperamentally mobile shelters in which to wait for the tow truck.) Because autos are so bound up with energy use and increasingly overpopulated highways, the cars of the future will need to be designed with an eye to how well they slip into clogged highways and lessen the strain on fuel supplies
So what’s Ford working on? Paul Mascarenas, Ford’s chief technical officer, said, “With increasing pressures from urbanization and the need to reduce energy use, we’re going to see energy storage, wireless connectivity, sensing systems, and even autonomous vehicles as key parts of the solution.” (“Autonomous” does not mean “flying.” I checked the dictionary.) The “sensing systems” research is pretty cool. One of the projects, in conjunction with weather forecasting company Weather Underground, is to hook up sensors to a car’s windshield wipers to fine-tune weather forecasting. A bunch of cars activating their wipers in a single area means it’s raining (or, perhaps, some form of sudden-onset, collective psychosis that the Centers for Disease Control might want to keep its eye on).
I look at Ford’s move to Silicon Valley in light of the recent employment data that shows we've got a dramatically bifurcated workforce: those with an advanced education have a relatively low unemployment rate, and those without are struggling. There's very little "old tech" anymore (there probably hasn't been for some time). Even the most basic devices, like windshield wipers on a car, are undergoing dramatic revolutions that can only be understood by people with advanced degrees. That's a shame about the windshield wipers, because I'm still not smart enough to get the "old tech" wipers to fit properly; now I need an advanced degree in electrical engineering and software programming to put on my winter blades? I guess I'll be doing a lot of rolling down the window and sticking my head out. Works for my dog.