A rally? Well, not really

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U.S. stock markets stabilized and gained somewhat Wednesday after two days of losses driven by first-quarter earnings fears, but Wall Street experts believe that the upcoming earnings season could end the recent market run-up, which many view as a temporary bear-market rally.

Big media and entertainment stocks, which had a down first quarter but have gained momentum during recent weeks and were up again Wednesday, might be no different.

News Corp. shares rose 41.8% from their February closing price through the end of last week. Viacom's stock gained 25.6% during that period, Disney shares rose 19.3%, CBS Corp. improved by 15.2%, and Time Warner edged up 6.3%.

"The recent run-up in media stocks suggests investors are looking past the horrid near-term trends to a happier place off in the horizon," Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson wrote in a report titled "When Reality Hits," published Wednesday. "However, we think the rally will meet resistance once the market realizes that the first-quarter results are below consensus."

Others have issued similar warnings about sector stocks and the overall market.

"Enjoy the brief party," Vogel Capital Management president Hal Vogel said last week, adding that the rally could extend through the next couple of months. "Then things turn ugly again."

On Wednesday, Nathanson updated his quarterly estimates for media conglomerates, all below Wall Street consensus expectations. His Viacom and TW earnings forecasts fall the least below consensus — by 1 and 2 cents a share, respectively — but his estimates for CBS, News Corp. and Disney are "massively below consensus," he said.

Nathanson also lowered his full-year profit estimates for every media conglomerate he covers except TW, and Viacom is the only sector stock he rated "outperform." He particularly warned of weak film-unit results during this earnings season because of weaker DVD sales and currency effects.

"First-quarter 2009 results will be a continuation of the disappointing results of the fourth quarter," Nathanson wrote. "In aggregate, the four filmed-entertainment divisions of (TW, Disney, Viacom and News Corp.) are estimated to report revenue declines of 7% and profit declines of 66%."

The broad S&P 500 index closed Wednesday at 825.16, up 1.2%, and the Dow climbed 0.6% to 7,837.11 as early gains were pared after minutes of last month's Federal Reserve Board meeting, released Wednesday, showed Fed officials had dimmed their economic outlook and predicted only a slow recovery next year amid rising unemployment.

Trading volume is expected to be weak today because of Passover, and U.S. markets are closed on Good Friday.

The THR Showbiz 50 index closed up 1% on Wednesday at 765.85. Disney's stock rose 1.3% to $19.36, News Corp. edged up 0.4% to $8.23, and TW gained 3.2% to $21.92. Viacom shares rose 2.1% to $19.93, and CBS closed at $5.03, up 3.7%. (partialdiff)
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