The Dow Jones industrial average has moved primarily sideways since peaking April 11 at 14,865.14. Periods like this provide a good opportunity to take a step back and examine what the market is telling us.
Economic growth regained speed in the first three months but slowed once companies reported their latest quarter results. The primary trend is still in the bullish camp, with few references to a bear market in the expanded economy.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the economy expanded at an annualized rate of 2.5 percent in the March quarter. The growth represents impressive acceleration from the December quarter’s meager 0.4 percent. The private sector more than offset any weakness in government spending.
A bull would recognize personal-consumption spending rising 2.2 percent as the largest quarter gain since December 2010. There is nothing more important to the economy than a strong consumer market, and in the March quarter, consumers were spending. In addition, inflation remains under control – the price index indicated inflation of 0.9 percent in the March quarter, down 1.6 percent in each of the last two quarters.
Bulls like performance, and to simplify, stock prices can rise for two reasons: (1) investors become more optimistic about the outlook for earnings and dividends and (2) investors become more willing to pay up for those earnings and dividends because of diminished risk or diminished competition from alternative investments like bank accounts and bonds.
Another item the bulls like is the dividend hikes many companies have announced since Jan. 1. A number of blue-chip stocks, including Apple Inc., as reported below, have raised their payouts.
One Town Crier “50” stock and another local company made news last week.
• Apple Inc. (AAPL; $432.34) gave investors what they were looking for in their deployment of cash. Apple is opening the bank vault and will distribute $100 billion in cash to shareholders over two years. It will also buy back $60 billion in shares and raise its dividend by 15 percent to $3.05 per share. Investors have been pushing Apple to distribute its cash hoard of $145 billion.
The Cupertino-based company announced financial results for the fiscal second quarter that ended March 30. Apple posted quarterly revenue of $43.6 billion and quarterly profit of $9.5 billion. However, the company’s gross profit margin plunged nearly 10 percent, reflecting a shift in product mix. Apple sold 37.4 million iPhones, up 7 percent from a year ago, and 19.5 million iPads, up 65 percent.
Apple provided future guidance for its fiscal 2013 third quarter: revenue between $33.5 billion and $35.5 billion and gross margins between 35 and 37 percent.
The Apple Worldwide Developers Conference will kick off June 10 in San Francisco.
While analysts maintain different opinions on Apple stock, with the price in the low $400s now, many consider it a strong buy, with a median target price at $590.
• Varian Medical Systems Inc. (VAR; $64.79), regarded one of the top health-care equipment companies, last week announced that profits rose 9 percent to $1.02 in the March quarter. In line with consensus reporting, the Palo Alto-based company reported revenues increasing 13 percent to $842 million on 14 percent growth from X-ray products. The backlog rose 4 percent to $2.75 billion.
Varian entered the third quarter with cash, cash equivalents and short-term investments of $795.9 million, up 22.8 percent on a year-over-year basis. Long-term debt stood at $6.3 million.
Numerous analysts like Varian stock and have upgraded its status. Considered a long-term buy, Varian is expected to outperform the industry, with a high target of $88 and a mean target of $79.