Market Preview: Off to the Races?

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Despite the positive action of the past few days, Mom and Pop have gotten plenty bearish on U.S. stocks of late.

First, there was some eye-popping fund flow data on Wednesday. For the week ended April 18, long-term mutual funds investing in domestic equities saw outflows of $8.68 billion, according to data from the Investment Company Institute.

That's equal to the total amount of outflows for such funds over the past three weeks. Interestingly, the main beneficiary of this exodus was funds investing in foreign equities, which saw inflows of $8.73 billion. Bonds and hybrid funds, which invest in both equities and bonds, also did well, attracting inflows of $5.25 billion and $1.18 billion respectively.

Then today came the latest sentiment survey from the American Association of Individual Investors. Those identifying themselves as bullish, meaning they expect the S&P 500 to rise over the next six months, dropped for a fourth straight week, losing 3.5 percentage points to 27.6%.

That's significantly below the long-term average of 39% and a dramatic drop from a near-term peak of 51.6% for the week ended Feb. 9. The recent roller-coaster action in the major U.S. equity indices this month with the U.S. economic data softening, problems in Europe flaring up once again, Apple pulling back from its all-time high, and the end of Operation Twist looming at the end of June seems to have stoked fears that Wall Street could be in for a repeat performance of the past two years when the gains early in the year gave way to cruel summers.

The bear camp swelled to 37.4%, up 3.6 percentage points, and elevated from its long-term average of 30%. Those identifying as neutral totaled 35%, virtually flat with last week's reading and above a long-term average of 31%.

After Thursday's surge, the markets have regained most of the ground lost during this recent stretch of turbulence, righting the ship so to speak. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has regained 13,000 in convincing fashion, the Nasdaq has tacked on nearly 3% in the past two days, and the S&P 500 is sitting just a hair below 1400 after peaking above that level in intraday action for the first time since April 5.

Mark Arbeter, chief technical strategist at S&P Capital IQ, says a convincing break through 1400 could herald the market's ready to move another leg up.

"The S&P 500 is in the process of breaking the bearish trendline off the recent highs, a bullish sign, in our view," he wrote in commentary on Thursday. "However, there is some minor chart resistance that sits up in the 1,390 to 1,400 region, and this may represent a ceiling in the next week or two. However, if this overhead supply gives way, we think it could be off to the races on the upside. We are still looking for a final rally that takes the S&P 500 up to at least the 1,450 zone, and possibly up near 1,500."

Before that happens though, Wall Street will need to digest the late Thursday that Standard & Poor's has lowered its credit rating on Spain to 'BBB+' from 'A.' This can't be a big surprise but it could still rattle sentiment (and raise the country's borrowing costs).

As for Friday's scheduled news, Ford Motor gets the spotlight treatment here. The car maker is due to report its first-quarter results before the opening bell, and the average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for earnings of 35 cents a share in the March-ended period on revenue of $31.46 billion.

The stock is up 9% so far in 2012, but it hasn't done much in the past year, ranging between a low of $9.05 on Oct. 4 and a high of $15.70 in late April 2011. At current levels, Ford trades at forward price-to-earnings multiple of 6.9X, a bit pricier than General Motors , which trades at a forward P/E of 5.1X.

Ford takes the checkered flag when it comes to returning cash to shareholders though with a 1.8% forward annual dividend yield vs. zilch for GM.

Allan Mulally & Co. are coming off the best March for U.S. sales in five years after moving 223,418 vehicles, up 5% from last year, last month. The Ford Fusion had its best month ever with sales totaling 28,562 units. The company sold a total of 539,247 vehicles in the first quarter, up 9% from last year, with its most fuel-efficient models leading the charge.

The sell side is bullish ahead of the report with 14 of the 19 analysts covering Ford at either strong buy (5) and buy (9), and the 12-month median price target sitting at $16, implying potential upside of 35% from Thursday's close at $11.87.

S&P Capital IQ reiterated a buy rating ahead of the report, saying it expects the company's profit picture to brighten as the year progresses and into 2013. The firm is above consensus, forecasting earnings of 39 cents a share for the quarter, and it expects a profit of $1.46 a share for the whole of 2012 on revenue of $144 billion.

"We expect underlying profit improvement in the key U.S. market to be masked by accounting changes that increase F's tax rate in '12, as well as by losses in Europe and lower financial services profits," wrote analyst Efraim Levy in a preview on Wednesday. "However, adjusting for the tax changes, we project a resumption of year-over-year profit growth starting in Q3. Longer term, F is positioning for higher future profits via its investments in China."

Levy is looking for revenue to rise nearly 10% in 2013 with earnings per share seen increasing by 17%.

Check out TheStreet's quote page for Ford for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more.

The morning also brings reports from three Dow components, Chevron , Merck , and Procter & Gamble .

As The Wall Street Journal points out, the blue chips have outperformed this earnings season. Of the 20 Dow components that have already reported, only Exxon Mobil , which missed Wall Street's consensus view this morning, and McDonald's , which was in line with the average analysts' view, haven't been part of earnings beat club.

Other companies opening the books before the opening bell include Arkansas Best , Barnes Group , Calpine , FLIR Systems , Goodyear Tire , Honda Motor , Imax , International Paper , KKR & Co. , Lazard , Newell Rubbermaid , Newmont Mining , Oppenheimer , Pilgrim's Pride , Ruth's Hospitality Group , VF Corp. , and Weyerhaeuser .

Friday's economic calendar is headlined by the advance estimate of first-quarter gross domestic product at 8:30 a.m. ET. The consensus estimate is calling for growth of 2.5%, according to Briefing.com. Suffices to say, a disappointment here will make for an ugly session but the bright spot would be an increased likelihood that Ben Bernanke could sell the rest of the Federal Reserve on another round of quantitative easing.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, thinks an upside surprise may be in order for GDP. He's looking for growth of 2.7%, buoyed by strong consumer spending.

"Market expectations for a rather weak first quarter have given way over the past month or so to a grudging acceptance that growth was likely significantly above 2% rather than significantly below," he said. "The economy is hardly firing on all cylinders -- yet -- but talk of double dips was way off the mark. The ever-cautious -- you might say interial -- Fed will not fully embrace the recovery story until a run of several 3%-or-better quarter have been recorded, but that day is drawing closer."

There's the final University of Michigan read on consumer sentiment, which is seen staying put at 75.7. The data is due at 9:55 a.m. ET.

And finally, the after-hours headlines were fast and furious once again on Thursday with Amazon.com surging after an impressive quarter where it grew the top line by more than 30% and won the margin battle. Allscripts Healthcare Solutions was the disaster du jour, plunging more than 45% after a slew of bad news including below-consensus quarter, a lower outlook for the full year, a departing CFO and a messy board shake-up.

--Written by Michael Baron in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Michael Baron.

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