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Market Close - The U.S. equity market rally continued today and in a big way. All told, the major market averages were nicely higher at the start of session day and carried those gains into the second half of trading. Then at 2:00 P.M. (EDT), with a boost from the release of the minutes from the Federal Reserve’s last monetary policy meeting (more below), the buying picked up and the gains were extended through to the closing bell. When all was said and done, the Dow Jones Industrial, the NASDAQ, and the broader S&P 500 Index were up 181, 71, and 20 points, respectively. Overall, advancing issues far outpaced decliners on both the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ.

The buying was rather encompassing, with every one of the top 10 sectors, with the exception of the high-yielding utilities, comfortably in positive territory. Leadership came from the struggling healthcare and technology stocks. In the healthcare space, the recently out-of-favor biotech issues were in demand, while the stocks of the IT services and the semiconductor equipment makers led the way in the technology group. The selling of the utilities should not come as a surprise, as the safety of such issues is less desirable when the mood on Wall Street is uplifting, which was certainly the case today.

As noted, the market got a shot in the arm from the latest release from the Federal Reserve. Specifically, the Federal Reserve minutes showed that central bank is not wedded to raising interest rates even if the nation’s unemployment rate was to fall to the Fed’s target range of 6.5%. In fact, the commentary showed that many Federal Reserve officials believe that rates should be kept low because the economy, though improving, is still far from firing on all cylinders. Accommodative monetary policies are typically viewed favorably by market participants—and that certainly seemed to be the case once again today. Simply put, there are few attractive investment alternatives to stocks in a low interest-rate environment.

The Federal Reserve releases got even more attention than it would normally get as it came on a day where there not much to talk about as far as the economy and earnings go. On the earnings front, as noted in our prior market commentary, aluminum maker and former Dow-30 component Alcoa (AA) reported better-than-expected results, which is interesting as the prevailing thought on Wall Street is that first-quarter earnings season will bring more disappointments than positive surprises. We think such thinking had a lot to do with the market’s struggles in the three days prior to the pickup in buying the last two days—and may have been a reason why the percentage gain for the S&P Mid-Cap 400 Index was not as formidable as the advances for the aforementioned large-cap indexes.

Although the heavy dose of earnings news will not begin until next week, we do get some notable reports in the next few days, including the latest quarterly results from banking giants JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Free JPMorgan Stock Report) and Wells Fargo (WFC) on Friday. Tomorrow will bring the latest quarterly data from large-cap companies Family Dollar Stores (FDO) and Rite Aid (RAD). - William Ferguson

At the time of this article's writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.

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2:30 PM EDT - Bargain hunting in the wake of a recent string of losses and a positive reception to the release, within the past hour, of the minutes from the last Federal Reserve Board FOMC meeting are combining to give the stock market a notable lift this afternoon.

To wit, after starting the day on a somewhat muted, albeit higher, note, the market's comeback kicked into gear around lunch time. Then, as traders awaited the release of the minutes, stocks climbed still further. Finally, after the report's issuance at 2:00 (EDT) this afternoon, the buyers really stepped in, and as we head toward the final hour of the trading day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up by 155 points, or just about 1%, while the NASDAQ, the big loser in the recent selloff, is ahead by 64 points, or 1.5%.

Leading the NASDAQ higher are the very names, mostly in the tech area, which had contributed mightily to the aforementioned market setback late last week and this past Monday.

Meanwhile, helping the market was, as noted, a favorable reception for the Fed minutes, which seemed to imply that the bank would be in no hurry to raise interest rates aggressively, as there remain sufficient headwinds to keep borrowing costs low for a while yet.   - Harvey S. Katz

At the time of this article's writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.    

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12:15 PM EDT - The U.S. stock market is trading higher today, as traders look to build on yesterday’s advance. At just past noon in New York, the major averages are near the day’s high which is encouraging. Specifically, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up about 63 points; the broader S&P 500 Index is ahead six points; and the NASDAQ is higher by 29 points. Market breadth suggests a positive bias to today’s session, as advancing stocks are outnumbering by decliners on the NYSE. Most of the market sectors are in positive territory. On point, there is some strength in the healthcare sector, as the badly bruised biotechnology names are attracting buyers. The technology stocks also are doing well, as the Internet issues are rebounding. Meanwhile, the utilities are weaker today. The energy names are also slipping.

Technically, stocks found some support yesterday, after a severe three-day pullback. Yesterday’s advance was accompanied by decent, but not overwhelming, trading volumes. This may suggest a lack of commitment on the part of traders. However, it remains to be seen if the bulls can maintain this fledgling momentum. For now, sentiment seems to be improving, as the VIX is a bit lower.

Meanwhile, there was limited economic news released this morning. However, wholesale inventories rose 0.5% in February, which matched general expectations. This afternoon, the FOMC will release the minutes from its March meeting, and this item will likely be dissected by traders looking for insight into the Fed’s monetary policy. Some may be hesitant to take positions in front of this release, and that may explain the somewhat muted tone so far today.

Finally, the first-quarter earnings season has just begun. After the close of trading yesterday, Alcoa (AA) released its results. Generally, investors were pleased, as that bellwether metals issues is trading higher. Elsewhere, Constellation Brands (STZ) is seeing its stock move lower, as some investors may be concerned about its outlook. - Adam Rosner

At the time of this article’s writing, the author had a position in AA.

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Stocks to Watch from The Survey First-quarter earnings season kicked off after the market closed yesterday, when aluminum producer Alcoa (AA) released March-period results. Investors were encouraged by the company’s adjusted earnings and outlook, and the stock is up moderately ahead of the bell, in response. Shares of beer, wine, and spirits company Constellation Brands (STZ) are also indicating a nicely higher opening this morning on earnings news. February-period results from multi-purpose lubricants manufacturer WD-40 Company (WDFC) did not garner such a warm reception on Wall Street, however, and that equity is moving slightly lower in pre-market trading, as a result. Still, today’s biggest disappointment appears to come from medical devices maker Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), as the company cut its revenue forecast, citing softer demand for its pricy da Vinci surgical systems. Management also said it will take a $67 million charge in the first quarter to settle legal claims against the company. Consequently, ISRG stock is down sharply ahead of the bell. – Matthew E. Spencer

At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.

Before The Bell - After suffering through three straight daily stock market declines, the last two of which were rather sizable, Wall Street sought to right the ship in the latest session. And off the bat, it appeared as though it would, as the major equity averages moved modestly higher early on. 

However, those good feelings did not last all that long, and within the hour, the sellers were back at it again, albeit with none of the enthusiasm mustered during the prior two trading days. In fact, all that the Dow Jones Industrial Average could manage early in the day was a drop of some 65 points. The Standard and Poor's 500 Index, meanwhile, was off only about seven points at its morning nadir, while the NASDAQ, the focus of the large-cap selling the prior three sessions, managed to largely keep the sellers at bay, for a change, edging down a mere 10 points at its early low for the session.

Encouragingly, when the sellers could not mount a serious charge, the bulls tiptoed back into the water once again, taking the NASDAQ somewhat higher. In all, it led the way up to a mid-session gain of some 40 points. The small-cap Russell 2000, another major casualty of the rotation out of growth stocks in the past week, also enjoyed something of a revival, as did the S&P Mid-Cap 400 Composite. This was no dramatic recovery, to be sure, but for much of the session, there also was no additional damage of consequence. In fact, we even saw selective buying among the high-profile tech names, an area that had suffered mightily during the past week, or so.

Then, for the remainder of the day, the bulls and the bears engaged in the time-honored tug of war to see who would ultimately get the upper hand. Meanwhile, the buying seemed to be a case of bargain hunting following the losses of the past few days. There also was some logical angst ahead of the commencement of first-quarter earnings season, which is set to get going this week. But it will be the following week that really sees earnings reporting kick into high gear, as a number of large Dow-30 components will get ready to show their wares. The concerns, which are always in evidence when we reach reporting season, may be a bit more intense this time around given the meager expectations. By the close then, the leading averages were all higher, led by the NASDAQ in the large-cap sector, with that index regaining 33 points. The S&P 500 Index also tracked higher, adding seven points, while the Dow, which was in and out of the black, wound up pressing a slight 10 points higher, having failed to regain any of its earlier moderate momentum. 

Meantime, this also is a light news week, with the business beat barely audible until tomorrow, when we get the weekly data on initial and continuing jobless claims. Then, on Friday, the Labor Department will report on March producer prices and the University of Michigan will weigh in on consumer sentiment. Later today, meantime, the Federal Reserve Board will release the minutes from its last Federal Open Market Committee meeting. That can be a market-moving event, though we do not sense any such excitement will be forthcoming later today.

For now, the focus will be on seeing whether the latest selling is a mere footnote in the long-running bull market or something more serious. It should be noted that until the NASDAQ and the Russell 2000 staged modest comebacks yesterday, their several-session setback had put them about two-thirds of the way toward a correction, which is commonly defined at a 10% decline in the affected averages. A bear market is a 20% drop in the market; obviously, we are nowhere near that latter benchmark, although a number of former high-flying NASDAQ names have broken through that 20% barrier. So, while there is no bear market in place, as such, or even a correction, at this time, there have been some notable individual setbacks.      

Finally, as we get ready for a new day, we find that the markets in Asia were generally higher overnight, save for Japan's Nikkei, while the bourses are advancing notably in Europe thus far this morning. And on our shores, the futures are pushing nicely higher with less than an hour to go before the start of the new trading day, led higher by an emerging consensus that the first interest-rate hike from the Federal Reserve will not occur until the second half of 2015. Also, aluminum maker and former Dow-30 component Alcoa (AA) chipped in with somewhat better-than-expected earnings after the close of trading yesterday, and that stock, a strong performer thus far this year, is rising vigorously in the pre-market this morning. - Harvey S. Katz

At the time of this article's writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.