The Dow Limps Into Earnings Season


With earnings season set to kick off tomorrow, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) fell 0.2% on light trading for the Columbus Day holiday as some analysts fear that earnings may contract this quarter for the first time in three years.

International news also helped keep shares down, as the World Bank warned that China's slowdown could steepen, cutting its forecast for the East Asia/Pacific region. Meanwhile, in Europe some German officials spoke out against a bailout for Spain, and labor unions in Greece are preparing massive strikes and protests for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's arrival tomorrow. Both the German DAX and the French CAC 40 fell more than 1.4% today.

No Dow stock gained more than 1% in trading as UnitedHealth Group (NYS: UNH) was the biggest winner, moving up 0.8% after purchasing a 90% stake in Amil Participaoes, Brazil's largest health insurer and hospital operator. The deal, which cost $4.9 billion, will give UnitedHealth access to a fast-growing customer base, as Brazil's middle class is rapidly expanding and its health care market is expected to grow twice as fast as that of the United States.

Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) and American Express also gained slightly after announcing they ill team up to offer customers a prepaid debit card called Bluebird, which started as a pilot program late last year. The service will give consumers who are fed up with hidden banking fees another option, as the card provides similar capabilities, but without a minimum balance requirement or regular fees. Shares of prepaid provider and Wal-Mart-partner Green Dot fell 20% on the news.

On the other side of the ledger, Home Depot (NYS: HD) led the losers, falling 2.1%. Though the home-improvement retailer operates only within North America, the stock is economically sensitive to global news and would suffer in a slowdown. Notably, the company's CFO this weekend specifically dismissed international expansion as an option this weekend, saying, "There aren't very many places around the world that are interesting" for moving into.

Elsewhere, Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) continued its slide after last week's dismal outlook, falling 1.7%. A UBS analyst also suggested breaking up the company, as it's now priced under its book value. Finally, Disney fell 1.2% on a valuation-based downgrade.

Investors will want to watch Alcoa tomorrow, as the commodity producer, which kicks off earnings season after close, often serves as a guide for the rest of the market. Analysts are expecting earnings of a penny per share.

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