There are a lot of bellwether companies to report over the next couple of weeks and the trading action in stocks will be focused on that news. I still don’t think that this earnings season has been anything to write home about. For a number of large-cap companies, the earnings have been solid, but there haven’t been any grand slams. The fact is that this economy can’t produce much in the way of outperformance, with the possible exception of gold stocks.
Railroad stocks are still looking great in this market and that’s always a good sign that general economic activity is getting better. The railroad companies operate like the accounting concept: first in/first out. They see improved economic activity first and they see it go just the same. The major railroad stocks are trading just off their price highs. CSX Corporation (NYSE/CSX) just reported a 30% improvement in earnings, as freight volumes increased. Street analysts already raised their earnings guidance for the company’s second, third and fourth quarters, all of 2011 and 2012. If you want to know where the broader stock market is headed, just follow the railroad stocks.
Investing in gold and other precious metals continues to pay off regardless of what’s happening in other sectors of the economy. The new $7.8-billion bid by Barrick Gold Corporation (NYSE/ABX) for copper producer Equinox Minerals Limited (TSX/EQN) is the latest big acquisition in the mining business. Equinox Minerals has been a powerhouse moneymaker. The stock did very well over the last 10 months, and then pulled back with copper prices. Then, a Chinese company made an unsolicited bid for the company, but the Street figured that another, friendlier bid would surface (and rightly so). The stock traded well above its original takeover price and now the trade is over.
You can bet that, with gold prices and silver prices trading right at their all-time price highs, more mergers and acquisitions will be coming. This sector in my view remains perhaps the most attractive for equity speculators in the current environment. And this is knowing that most of the good gold stocks in that universe have already gone up. With mining companies almost drowning in cash, they have nowhere else to put this excess cash flow but to purchase other miners. I can almost see the investment bankers drooling over the prospects of more deals coming down the pipeline.
I do feel that the equity market looks tired and that a correction or meaningful consolidation is increasingly likely after first-quarter earnings season is over. As I’ve written recently, investors don’t need to be in a rush to take much action in this market. Things look like they’re topping out.