Citigroup, GE earnings lift hopes for economy

Facing conflicting evidence, analysts are wrestling with whether the economy is making a fitful climb back up — or whether the crisis will get worse before it gets better.

WASHINGTON (AP) âÄî A flurry of better-than-expected bank earnings reports this week, coupled with some tentatively encouraging economic data, suggest the economy and the financial system might not be quite as sick as many had believed. Or are they? Facing conflicting evidence, analysts are wrestling with whether the economy is making a fitful climb back up âÄî or whether the crisis will get worse before it gets better. “We’re beginning to get a little visibility on how banged up corporate America has been,” Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wachovia Corp., said of Friday’s earnings reports from Citigroup Inc. and General Electric Co. But the better-than-anticipated results from the banking giant and the diversified manufacturer âÄî among the most beleaguered companies in their industries âÄî buttress the notion “that just maybe we can see some light at the end of the tunnel now,” said Vitner, who anticipates an end to the recession toward year’s end but continued high unemployment well into 2010. Citigroup lost money in the first quarter and General Electric’s profits fell, but both beat Wall Street’s expectations. Their financial performance is being closely dissected for signposts of where the economy might be heading. Citigroup, which has been the weakest of the large U.S. banks, reported its smallest loss since 2007. The financial services company posted a first-quarter loss to common shareholders of $966 million after massive loan losses and dividends to preferred stockholders. However, before paying those dividends, which were tied to the government’s $45 billion investment in Citigroup, the bank earned $1.6 billion. GE said its first-quarter earnings fell 36 percent on sharply lower profits at its troubled finance arm. GE, which has a stake in almost every sector of the economy, from light bulbs to locomotives, posted net income of $2.74 billion after paying preferred dividends. That was down from $4.30 billion a year earlier. “We’ve come from a period where people thought the world was going to end to a period that is a little better,” Keith Sherin, GE’s chief financial officer, told analysts in a conference call. “I think today you look and there are some signs in the economy that are a little better.” The number of Americans receiving jobless benefits has surpassed 6 million for the first time while housing construction unexpectedly plunged in March. Still, even those outwardly negative reports carried some silver linings suggesting the recession could be easing, namely a second straight drop in new jobless claims and some stability in new single-family homes. Consensus is building that a bottom has been reached in sales of new and previously occupied homes. Homebuyers are rushing to take advantage of lower prices, incentives and interest rates. February sales of new and existing homes showed monthly gains, and eyes will be on data for March coming out next week to confirm the trend. Still, some cautioned against putting too much stock in recent positive signals. “I don’t think we should oversell these flickers of improvement,” said Brian Bethune, an economist with IHS Global Insight. “An actual recovery is still several months into the future âÄî it’s not imminent.” Stocks seesawed on Wall Street Friday as the twin earnings reports were taken as mixed signals: The results beat analysts’ estimates but were balanced by Citigroup’s continuing struggles with loan losses and sharply lower profits at GE’s big finance arm. In afternoon trading, the Dow Jones industrial average added about 30 points. Administration officials this week pressed their economic agenda by pointing to signs of hope among the mostly dire economic news. “There is no doubt that times are still tough,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday in a major speech on the economy. “By no means are we out of the woods just yet. But from where we stand, for the very first time, we are beginning to see glimmers of hope.” Yet before Obama delivered his speech, a cold dose of reality came in a report saying retail sales fell unexpectedly in March. The 1.1 percent drop was the biggest in three months and much weaker than the 0.3 percent increase that analysts expected. Some experts cautioned that more negative elements remain and new financial dominoes could be poised to fall. A wave of defaults linked to commercial mortgages has caused concern for companies that loaded up on securities backed by the those loans. Securities tied to credit cards pose a similar worry. With the economy still contracting and unemployment likely to remain high, there remains “a serious risk of deflation,” a period of dangerously falling prices, Bethune said. This week, the second-largest owner of shopping malls in the nation, General Growth Properties Inc., buckled under $27 billion in debt and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in a bid to protect its 200-plus malls. Another beset corporate giant, General Motors Corp., acknowledged Friday that bankruptcy remains probable given the restructuring goals set by the government for the automaker to get more than the $13.4 billion in federal aid it’s already received. GM Chief Executive Fritz Henderson said the company is working on two parallel plans, one that involves bankruptcy and one that doesn’t, to meet the June 1 deadline for cutting its labor costs and debt. Other CEOs have been more positive. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit touched off a stock market rally last month when he said the bank was profitable in January and February. That was taken as a sign the condition of the crucial banking industry may not be as dire as many had believed. Earlier in March, fears that big U.S. banks would need to be nationalized sent stocks plunging to 12-year lows. Citigroup’s better-than-anticipated report came after surprisingly solid earnings from JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Wells Fargo & Co. over the past several days. While recent results from these healthier banks have brought some relief to investors, many have been waiting to see how more troubled banks such as Citigroup have fared.