Some key earnings reports that came in stronger than expected pushed markets higher Friday, to end the week with a gain.
U.S. equities marched higher – by a smidge – in the stock market today, one day after benchmarks logged fresh records.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished at 15,464.07, up 3.15 points, or 0.02%. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index ended at 1,680.19, up 5.17 points, and the Nasdaq closed at 3,600.08, up 21.78 points.
As an economist, I wince whenever I hear someone say that we live in a true free market.
The reality is we live in a semi-free market where regulation stifles business and corporate money influences and distorts what would normally be a highly competitive marketplace.
And over the last two decades, the situation has only gotten worse for consumers, producers, and defenders of the so-called “free market.”
From 2008 to 2010, 30 major corporations paid more money in lobbying fees than they did in taxes, according to the Public Campaign.
But while traditional lobbying once centered on altering tax rates and encouraging legislation to liberalize and deregulate the economy, it has now evolved into a competitive weapon for companies trying to box out competitors and raise barriers to entry in their markets.
It’s a business phenomenon that I like to call the “Rise of the Fifth Rail.”
You see, in traditional markets, companies compete on four specific principles: Price, product quality promotion, and place (market access). These principles are known as the “four P’s.”
The first three are self-explanatory in that customers want the highest quality product at the cheapest price. Companies use promotional techniques to instill a need for its products and do so by marketing against the offerings of a competitor.
The fourth principle centers on a company’s ability to reach new markets and still provide low prices for high-quality products. A strong coordinated distribution network tends to make this possible.
Naturally, when all four work together, you end up with a company like Walmart (NYSE: WMT), which has the ability to provide low, everyday prices due to its best-in-class distribution network.
But over the last few decades, this new phenomenon of using lobbying as a competitive tool has altered the course of market economics, and driven fair competition into the ground.
And that phenomenon is rotting the American free market from the inside.
At the start of every earnings season, investors typically turn to Alcoa Inc. (NYSE: AA) – the first company in the Dow Jones to report earnings each quarter – as a market bellwether.
But Alcoa is no longer a reliable market indicator.
“With this upcoming earnings season, we wouldn’t put nearly the same confidence [in Alcoa] that we would just five or six years ago,” Ryan Detrick, a Cincinnati-based analyst at Shaeffer’s Investment Research, told Bloomberg News. “The company’s results now predict the direction of the market about as well as a coin flip.”
In fact, Money Morning Global Investing Strategist Martin Hutchinson said Alcoa, the largest producer of aluminum in the U.S., should never have been used as an economic indicator.
“I don’t think Alcoa was ever a very good bellwether; it just reports first,” Hutchinson said. “The aluminum cycle tells you something about manufacturing conditions, but manufacturing is a small part of the economy these days.”
So if not Alcoa, then what stocks should investors pay attention to this earnings season?
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