These 2 Stocks Could Be the Key to Stock Market Gains in 2021

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The stock market looked poised for a positive open on Tuesday morning, as investors continued to hope for an economic rebound motivated by COVID-19 vaccine rollouts and pent-up demand from consumers. Before the open as of 8 a.m. EDT, stock market futures on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) were up about 13 points, or 0.05%. S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) futures moved higher by almost 5 points, or 0.1%, while Nasdaq Composite (NASDAQINDEX:^IXIC) futures climbed 22 points, or 0.16%.

Earnings have been coming out, and although many investors are focusing on the releases from red-hot tech companies, the key to the stock market’s future success rests in businesses from other sectors. In particular, earnings reports from United Parcel Service (NYSE:UPS) and 3M (NYSE:MMM) Tuesday morning gave investors a much clearer view on how the remainder of the economy is faring. That should tell whether the gains that we’ve seen in the market over the past year have a chance of sustaining momentum and moving to other sectors that haven’t seen the same level of performance.

Image source: United Parcel Service.

Shipping it

Shares of United Parcel Service were up more than 7% in pre-market trading on Tuesday morning. Investors were generally pleased with what they saw in the shipping company’s first-quarter financial results.

Signs of economic strength were peppered throughout the UPS report. Revenue jumped 27% in the first quarter compared to the year-earlier period. Average daily volume was higher by 14%, and adjusted earnings almost quintupled when you include a one-time pension benefit, and were up more than 140% even on an adjusted basis.

The details of the UPS report showed underlying health in the Main Street economy and its impact on the transportation stock. Revenue in its domestic segment was up 22% year over year, with growth from small and mid-sized businesses driving the gains. Both Asia and Europe helped drive a 36% jump in sales in the international segment. The company’s supply chain and freight business also enjoyed strong demand and saw a 34% top-line gain.

Just about the only news that wasn’t overwhelmingly positive was that UPS chose not to give guidance for the full 2021 year. Nevertheless, investors got clear signs that shipping activity is strong and reflects an improving economy underlying the demand for the services UPS provides.

3M’s business looks m-m-m good

Investors didn’t quite give 3M stock the same reception that UPS got. Shares of the conglomerate were down 1% in pre-market trading, but that doesn’t mean its first-quarter report didn’t show positive signs of future growth ahead that were better than expected.

Overall, 3M’s numbers looked strong. Sales were up nearly 10% year over year, with the strongest gains in the company’s safety and industrial and transportation and electronics segments. Consumer and healthcare segment gains were also solid. Geographically, 3M’s biggest growth came from the Asia-Pacific region, although Europe also managed to post double-digit percentage gains in dollar terms. Earnings climbed 27% from year-ago levels.

3M’s outlook for 2021 remained somewhat conservative, but it’s still projecting reasonable growth. Guidance for $9.20 to $9.70 per share on the bottom line was unchanged from previous guidance but would represent 18% to 24% growth from 2020’s earnings per share figures. Revenue gains of 5% to 8% might not seem like much in comparison to tech stocks, but it would be a nice change after a couple of straight years of tepid top-line performance.

Investors hope that 3M will be able to participate in a bounce in the industrial economy. If 3M’s customers get stronger, then it should see larger orders that should in turn bulk up its business. It’s early yet, but it looks like both 3M and UPS are reflecting the confidence throughout the economy right now.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.