Corporate profits off to strong start for 2Q

    NEW YORK (AP) ? So much for fears that U.S. companies might stall out in the economy’s soft patch.

    Corporate profits are coming in better than expected so far in second-quarter earnings season despite concerns about the potential for trouble ahead.

    Strong showings from blue-chip companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have put the quarter on track to set a new record for operating earnings.

    “The corporate sector’s in great shape,” says Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. “The economy is a little healthier than we thought it was.”

    Aside from companies’ continuing stubbornness about hiring more workers, the early results are good news for investors and anyone worried that the debt-limit standoff in Washington or the financial crisis in Europe could inflict serious damage.

    Consumers’ willingness to spend on fast food, electronic gadgets and other items has helped fuel better-than-expected quarterly results. Among the standouts:

    ? Apple Inc. more than doubled its profit to $7.31 billion on an 82 percent jump in revenue, further testimony to the runaway popularity of the iPhone and iPad.

    ? Coca-Cola Co. more than tripled net income to $5.77 billion as the world’s largest drink maker increased its strength in emerging markets, such as Latin America, India and China, while sales held stable in the U.S. and Europe.

    ? Harley-Davidson Inc. more than doubled its profit to $191 million, posting an increase in U.S. motorcycle sales for the first time since 2006 and expanding its market share overseas.

    ? McDonald’s Corp. increased net income 15 percent to $1.4 billion on a 16 percent jump in revenue, attracting more customers for its broadening menu and array of coffee drinks even as it raised prices.

    Companies in several other industries also blew past Wall Street’s expectations this week, including credit card issuer American Express Co., toy maker Hasbro Inc., oil services company Halliburton Co., computer company IBM Corp., chipmaker Intel Corp. and health insurer UnitedHealth Group Inc.

    All told, 148 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index have reported earnings and 73 percent have beaten the expectations of Wall Street. That’s somewhat ahead of the typical pace of two-thirds that surpass estimates.

    Companies that had reported as of Friday had $24.52 per share in operating earnings ? profits before subtracting interest and tax expenses ? according to S&P senior index analyst Howard Silverblatt. The record of $24.06 per share was set in the second quarter of 2007.

    Wall Street analysts forecast the next two quarters to be even better at $25.30 per share in the third quarter and $26.47 per share in the fourth. That’s assuming the economy isn’t dragged down by the deficit-reduction impasse or another problem.

    Coming out of the recession, corporations first reported explosive earnings growth early last year. The pace has slowed, but it’s still going. At the current rate, second-quarter earnings would be 17 percent better than a year ago.

    It hasn’t all been smooth going, as Caterpillar Inc.’s big earnings shortfall Friday underscored. The world’s largest maker of construction and mining equipment took a hit because of the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan.

    Other stumbles this week came from drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, appliance maker Whirlpool Corp. and big airline companies weighed down by higher fuel costs: AMR Corp. and US Airways Group Inc.

    CEOs and chief financial executives also have been notably cautious in their comments about coming quarters, according to Quincy Krosby, financial market strategist with Prudential Financial.

    “A little bit of uncertainty has crept into companies’ guidance,” Krosby says. “”You’re hearing a lot of ‘It’s challenging,’ ‘It’s difficult,’ ‘We think we’re going to do well but we’re not sure.'” That hedging language, she says, has to do with the possibility for further trouble to develop from the ongoing economic and political dramas in Europe and Washington.

    Yet the stock market itself hasn’t shown much sign of concern. The S&P 500 rose 2.2 percent this week after having been down 2 percent during the previous two weeks.

    That shows that investors aren’t viewing companies’ positive showings skeptically, says Rob Stein, founder and senior portfolio manager for Chicago-based Astor Asset Management.

    “Earnings season has been at the higher end of expectations,” he says. “More importantly, it’s been well-received by the Street.”