Wall Street set for flat open with earnings on tap


U.S. stocks were set for a flat open on Tuesday with investors having little reason to buy equities after the recent rally as they waited for the kickoff later in the day of the U.S. quarterly earnings season.

The market was stable even after the IMF cut its forecast for global growth.

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Repeated warnings about the economy have left investors cautious before what could be a disappointing earnings season, after a rally that has pushed the S&P 500 up nearly 16 percent so far in 2012, driving it to an almost five-year high.

In the past few days, however, the market has remained stuck in a range as investors wait to see if there are any earnings surprises and what companies expect in the fourth quarter.

"We are about earnings here for the next two or three weeks, so I would expect to see us just chopping around in here," said Frank Lesh, a futures analyst and broker at FuturePath Trading LLC in Chicago. "They seem to be ratcheting down expectations for earnings somewhat, but you are still at 1,450," he said of the S&P 500 level.

"It either confirms your worst fears or things come in a little better than expected. At this point you don't really know, you just have to wait for the news."

The International Monetary Fund cut its global growth forecast for 2012 to 3.3 percent from 3.5 percent and forecast growth for next year at 3.6 percent. The international lender warned that a lack of action by U.S. and European policymakers to fix their economic problems could extend the current slump.

The IMF warnings come on the heels of a lowered forecast by the World Bank for growth in the East Asia-Pacific region on concerns China's slowdown could last longer than expected.

Analysts forecast third-quarter earnings of S&P 500 companies would fall 2.3 percent from the year-ago quarter, according to Thomson Reuters data, which would be the first drop in U.S. quarterly earnings in three years.

Earnings season will get under way later on Tuesday when Dow component Alcoa Inc reports quarterly earnings after the market close. Analysts expect Alcoa's third-quarter results to show the aluminum company broke even, down from a profit of 15 cents per share a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Among large multinationals that have warned about earnings, citing weakness in Europe and China, are FedEx Corp , Caterpillar Inc and Hewlett-Packard Co .

S&P 500 futures added 1.5 point and were roughly even with fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 24 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures dipped 0.5 point.

Investors were also eyeing a meeting of euro zone finance ministers and a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Greece for any signs of progress in dealing with the region's debt crisis.

On Monday, the euro zone finance ministers and the IMF held a "thorough and robust" debate on Greece, but failed to make significant progress in deciding how best to get the country back on track with its bailout program.

According to data through Monday, 91 companies in the S&P 500 have issued negative outlooks versus 21 positive pre-announcements, for a ratio of 4.3, the weakest showing since the third quarter of 2001.

Edwards Lifesciences Corp cut its revenue forecast for the third quarter, as sales of the medical device maker's heart valve that was expected to drive results fell short of estimates. Shares plunged 17.1 percent to $89.06 in premarket trade.

Spectrum Brands Holdings Inc , the maker of Rayovac batteries and other consumer products, said it will buy a unit of Stanley Black & Decker Inc that makes door locks and bath fixtures for $1.4 billion. Spectrum Brands shares gained 9.9 percent to $45.25 in premarket.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Leslie Adler)