If you build it from the top down, it's looking grim. But if you build up from the bottom up, you are liking what you are seeing.
That's pretty much my impression so far of this earnings season, as we try to make sense of how the U.S. and the world are doing.
We know the macro view always takes precedent. Why? Because it is spoon-fed; whether it be from the IMF, or from Labor, or Commerce, or any other entity, the market, particularly the bond market, takes it as reliable. When it comes from the Fed, it's treated as gospel.
Oh, and when it is augmented by lower oil -- the only commodity that seems to matter -- then it's sealed and done for.
But if you aren't a lazy good-for-nothing relying on this stuff and you actually try to piece things together from what the companies are telling you, then you get a very different picture.
Consider in the last 24 hours what we know. First, the tracking work done by Matthew Boss at JP Morgan this morning confirms what many of the retailers in the bricks-and-mortar world are telling me, that February may have been the trough month, with mall traffic down 5%, March down 4.1% and now April to date actually plus 1.3%.
OK, maybe you can say that's weather related and combines with a late Easter. But the fact is the conclusion Matthew Boss, the retail guru at JP Morgan is putting out, that things are getting better at a number of retailers is in stark contrast to the macro. Boss has his usual favorites that I totally agree with: Burlington (BURL) , TJX (TJX) -- an Action Alerts PLUS club holding -- Footlocker (FL) , Ollie's (OLLI) (amazing story) Dollar Tree (DLTR) -- pulling away from Dollar General (DG) , Big Lots (BIG) , and the controversial Lululemon (LULU) . But two new ones stand out, Gap Stores (GPS) with a stable Old Navy and Kohl's (KSS) , which is one I called out last week as perhaps being the best of the brick-and-mortar department stores.
This is a huge call and will set the tone for the day.
Second, American Express (AXP) talked about having a very strong March that has continued into April. While some of that is international -- which continues to be an amazing bright spot -- this Amex call is consistent with Boss' work at JP Morgan.
They call out U.K., Mexico and Japan as very strong. This is Mexico's second call-out, as we heard positives from Citigroup (C) on its call about the country.
It's worth noting that Amex, which is a gigantic advertiser, is now getting 60% of its new card leads from digital, which is a reason to continue to buy Google and Fabcebok. No, make that the reason! At least for today.
Then there's the comments made by CSX (CSX) last night, which showed a very big acceleration in auto shipments, mainly SUVs and trucks as well as a pickup in aggregates -- which means construction -- steel -- which could be tariffs but it still counts -- and export of coal.
Some of the strength came from price increases. The fact is that price increases -- not unlike that of International Paper (IP) , which seems to have no problem putting through the $50 per ton containerboard increase -- are the most sensitive commodity to an economic expansion.
If you do think that price increases vs. decreases matter, then you should take heart in the numbers that you got this morning from Nestle (NSRGY) and Unilever (UL) , both of which were slightly better than expected, especially, though, in the emerging markets. Here's a new theme that's resonating: better pricing in Latin America.
You can throw in Qualcomm's (QCOM) very cheery outlook, which is augmented by the positives it sees in cellphones and autos and in the coming 5G world. The latter may be too far away, but the cellphones are now and the autos are soon, meaning as soon as the company can close on the NXP Semi (NXPI) deal.
Now, there's always the bad with the good. United Rentals (URI) , despite a pick-up in oil drilling, used some downbeat terms that are resonating all over the place: "our rental rates remain under pressure." Somehow, those words trumped excellent guidance.
But if you add up one 24-hour period of info, you can only conclude that things are perhaps a little better and that rates, ex the worries over France, would be going higher and the stocks that have reported the best numbers should be climbing, namely the banks, led by Bank of America (BAC) , JP Morgan (JPM) , Citigroup (C) , PNC (PNC) and Morgan Stanley (MS) .
Then again, as I said, my view is based on grunt work.
The armchair generals always see it otherwise.
But then again, they've already made their money. What do they care?