The Street This Week: $300 Won't Buy A Rally

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Last week Wall Street dared to dream of a summer rally, of the roughshod running of bulls, finally, over bears, but when the second quarter's 1,500-company Normandy of corporate earnings was over, nobody could call it anything but a bloody draw. Most popular headline phrase: "Mixed Signals."

Some banks made money, some lost. Pepsi scored, Coke disappointed. Some techs went up, some (OK, most) went down. The PC market is so bad that Dell is getting into routers. And in an example that, yes, this column was watching with particular interest, AOL Time Warner beat earnings expectations but was deemed to have done it all through cost-cutting and accounting magic, and so was beaten by traders like a mule that was not only rented but over-dependent on the moribund ad market.

And nobody had any visibility except Alan Greenspan, who told the House that 1) the economy is "deteriorating at a slower rate," that 2) the Fed is ready for that rate to speed up again, and 3) everything'll pick up again by January.

Investors seemed to agree with this writer that of the three, the third statement was the one most likely indicative of a worried Fed head blowing smoke up a certain unmentionable orifice, in hopes of making all our dreams come true.

So what did you expect this week — optimism? Wall Street came back from an idyllic East Coast summer weekend with Friday's clouds in tow, using — gasp! — lackluster earnings news from 3M and Lexmark Technologies to sell the Dow off 100 and the NASDAQ off 25 by noon. (Disney presumably did not help matters by announcing that will buy Fox Family for $3 billion — and keep the 700 Club.)

The earnings invasion is back down to a scouting party, and the count of headliners presages far more bad news (American Express, Lucent, Xerox, Kellogg and Qualcomm) than good. Even the likely winners (Exxon, Phillips Petroleum) should only serve to remind stock-shoppers how low energy prices (and thus prospective profits) have gone lately.

By mid-week investors will be again looking with one eye on corporations and the other on the economic tide that's supposed to start lifting them all again, one of these days. Put them in three categories: Housing, labor, and Big News.

In the housing sector, Wednesday brings Existing Home Sales for June, expected to be down a bit from last month, and Friday it's new home sales, expected to once again make Greenspan smile — especially as he's managed to talk those 10-year bonds (think mortgages and mortgage-refis) down a bit. In a somewhat related report, durable-goods orders for June hits the Street on Thursday.

In the labor market, the Labor Department serves weekly unemployment claims, the Employment Cost Index and Help-Wanted Index on Thursday. But first figure out which way to read unemployment indicators — low, it's an inflation worry; high, it's a consumer-sentiment risk.

And in future headlines, Greenspan will tell the Senate on Tuesday what he told the House last week, with some adjustments made for previous press misinterpretations. And Friday we all get the bad news we've been waiting for — the second-quarter GDP number, of which estimates rage from 0.9 percent to 1.5 percent. But whatever it is, remember that 0.5 percent of that comes form the shrinking trade deficit — which is because of declining U.S. consumer demand for imports rather than anything encouraging like freer trade. Also Friday, the University of Michigan reports its second-half-of-June consumer sentiment numbers to its paying customers at 9:45 a.m. Somebody usually leaks it to the rest of us by 10:30 or so.

What will we be thinking about next Monday? Well, with a positive GDP number, fears of technical recession (two straight quarters of negative growth) will be officially dissipate. (Unless you're in manufacturing, in which case you've been in one for about a year.) But Wall Street has known that for months, and what it's looking for — some sign of a recovery they can time their stock-picking to — it won't find this week.

The tax checks start coming this week, and there's still reason to expect the consumer to continue keeping the overall economy afloat well into the fall. But "afloat" obviously isn't doing it for investors anymore, and why should it? Investing is built on growth, or at least the expectation of it, and there's still precious few signs of that out there.

Well, maybe next week.