The Week: Playing By the Numbers

A flood of numbers from both government and industry confronted investors through the week, making for some choppy trading and a lot of educated guesses from analysts, fund managers, and investors.

A lot of the guessing centered on whether the commodity surge was winding down and if the worst of the economic malaise was behind. Unfortunately, there were no absolute answers.

Still, the experts suggested that attractive investments could be found by searching through the murk. (You can catch highlights of their suggestions in the video).

1. Whither the Consumer?

The Federal Reserve trimmed interest rates another quarter point, to 2%, as expected, but left markets guessing about whether further cuts would be needed.

Adding to the muddle, consumer confidence plunged for a fourth consecutive month, even as consumer spending soared, largely because of energy prices.

John Linehan of T. Rowe Price took that as a cue to buy consumer stocks, like Sunoco , Anheuser Busch , and Dell


. "Our strategy is to buy companies that are really good companies, but really down and out, and Dell clearly is a company that's down and out," he told CNBC.

Formula Capital's James Altucher said investors can profit from food inflation: "I like Sysco , which basically has the monopoly on food distribution," he offered. Kevin Shacknofsky of Alpine Woods Capital Management even had a play based on Russian consumers, the wireless service provider Mobile Telesystems . "Russian consumers like to spend," he said. "Historically, whenever they've had money in the bank, government policy has wiped out their savings."

2. A Number of Numbers

Visa and MasterCard posted quarterly results that were among the best of the week. Moshe Katri of Cowen & Co. credited a big move away from paying bills with cash and checks. "Credit cards, online debit, offline debit: In our view, this is a secular shift that will probably continue for the next three to five years," he said.

Nevertheless, their stocks finished weak after the Fed backed tougher credit card rules.

The semiconductor industry reported a 3.8 percent jump in global sales during the first quarter. John Lau of Jefferies & Co. said buying Intel , Qualcomm, and Anadigics would be a great offshore play for the investor. "Only 25 percent of PCs consumed worldwide is in the United States," he noted.

Ford's report of a quarterly profit sent shares up more than 10 percent, but Bernie McGinn was not surprised. On St. Patrick's Day, on CNBC, he had urged investors to buy Ford; since then, he's seen Ford shares soar 65.2 percent. "What's happening now is, the story is getting out to the investment community, and Wall Street is taking notice, and I think that the management team put together by Alan Mulally and Billy Ford is starting to get the recognition that they're due," he said this week.

General Motors posted a quarterly loss, but it wasn't as bad as Wall Street had feared.

Exxon Mobil discovered, pure earnings weren't everything; the oil giant's record quarterly earnings for any American company still fell short of analysts' expectations. And the Federal Reserve's quarter-point interest-rate impressed the markets not at all.

3. Chewing, Viewing, and Eschewing

There were some major corporate headlines through the week as well.

Warren Buffett got into the headlines early, brokering a deal in which privately-held candymaker Mars acquired the Wrigley chewing-gum empire. Time Warner made it official: It's going to spin off its cable-TV business. Home Depot said it's closing 15 U.S. stores and will halt plans to develop 50 more.

4. More Buck for the Bank?

The financial sector continued to be a subject of hot debate among the experts.

Putnam's chief investment officer Kevin Divney urged investors to stay away. "The balance sheets are not totally clean yet," he said. "Even if they are, replacing the growth of what the financial sector had done for four to five years is not going to come in 2008."

Punk, Ziegel's Richard Bove, however, pointed out that his firm has "buy" ratings on no fewer


than a dozen banks.

"The ones that are up tend to be the ones that are in the regions, like PNC Financial , BB&T Systems , US Bancorp , or UnionBanCal , which are not heavily involved with either the mortgage area or...the capital markets area," he explained.

5. Loosely In the Sky

Perhaps the week's most counter-intuitive play came from Brent Wilsey of Wilsey Asset Management, who recommended some travel-oriented stocks. After naming Carnival and Winnebago , he actually talked up an airline: "SkyWest !" he enthused. "You can't get a seat on a plane, which is kind of amazing to me, but they've grown their sales at 8 percent; their earnings are up 7 percent year-over-year."

Bon voyage, investors.