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After The Close - The U.S. stock market got off to a strong start this morning, and managed to hold its gains through the afternoon. At the end of the session, and the close of the first quarter, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 135 points; the broader S&P 500 Index advanced 15 points; and the technology-heavy NASDAQ finished higher by 43 points. Market breadth displayed widespread support for equities, as advancing stocks were ahead of decliners by roughly three to one on the NYSE. Almost all of the market sectors made progress. Leadership was found in the healthcare group, as the biotechnology issues attracted investors. Too, the financial sector performed well, with leadership in the large banks. In contrast, the energy subset was somewhat weak. Notably, the price of crude oil traded lower, and that may have hurt some energy equities.

Technically, the S&P 500 Index spent the month of March locked in a choppy trading range. Today’s move up put the broad index back near the middle of that area, and not too far from high ground located at about 1,880. Whether or not the bulls can mount a successful advance from here remains to be seen. It should be noted that the NASDAQ has been an area of some weakness lately, falling below its 50-day moving average a few days ago. We will be watching for some technical improvement on this key average, which might help confirm that the bulls are still in control. Sentiment improved quite a bit today, as the VIX retreated to under 14.

Investors received few notable economic reports this morning. Specifically, the Chicago PMI came out with a reading of a 55.9 in March, which was well below the February figure, and also short of expectations. The harsh weather may have been to blame. Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen spoke today, as well, indicating that the economy would require support for some time. Furthermore, on the International front, it appears that a peaceful resolution to the troubles in Ukraine may be possible, but that is hardly certain.

Traders received few corporate reports today. However, shares of General Motors (GM) headed lower, as the large automaker has been under pressure, due to vehicle recalls and related problems. - Adam Rosner

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

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12:00 PM EDT - The major U.S. equity indexes jumped out to a nice start this morning and are still holding a good portion of those gains as we approach the midday hour on the East Coast—though some profit taking has emerged in the last half hour. Pushing the averages higher on the final trading day of the quarter is some news from overseas, specifically from the euro zone, and some and some buying ahead of the quarter’s end (more below). The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up triple digits for much of the morning, gaining as much as 150 points at its high, is now up  90 points; the broader S&P 500 Index is comfortably above the neutral line; and the technology heavy NASDAQ, which was under notable pressure last week, is rebounding nicely today. Moreover, the small-cap Russell 2000 is up the biggest percentage among the major indexes, suggesting that investors are showing a willingness to take on more risk right now. Overall, advancing issues are far outpacing decliners on both the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ, to the tune of more than three to one on the Big Board.

As noted, the U.S. equity market got a significant boost from news on the Continent earlier today. Specifically, data showed that euro-zone inflation has slowed to its lowest level since 2009. That report has investors’ thinking that the European Central Bank may now be more prone to implement some more monetary stimulus in the months ahead, which is typically viewed as a positive for equity markets. (The major European bourses are all holding nice gains as trading nears a close on the Continent.) We also think that stocks may be getting a boost from some end of the quarter “window dressing.” Such a strategy is often used by mutual funds and portfolio managers near the end of the quarter to improve the appearance of the portfolio/fund performance before presenting it to its clients and shareholders. That said, notwithstanding today’s notable move higher, the major U.S. equity indexes are on track to finish the quarter about where they started.

From a sector perspective, it has so far been a sea of black ink for the 10 major groups, with the exception being the energy stocks. Among today’s leaders are last week’s laggards, including the healthcare and technology stocks. Within the healthcare space, the biotechnology stocks, which were under heavy selling pressure last week, are advancing today. Other sectors moving nicely higher are the financial and the industrial groups. The more economically sensitive sectors, meantime, are getting a boost from the aforementioned euro-zone economic news. Conversely, the energy stocks, as noted are in the red, but not too far removed from the neutral line.

At the same time, it has been a rather quiet day stateside on both the earnings and economic fronts. On the earnings side, shares of Cal-Maine (CALM) are higher after the eggs producer reported better-than-expected quarterly results, earning $1.77 per share, versus the consensus expectation of $1.59.  On the business beat, the only notable report this morning was the Chicago PMI, which showed that manufacturing activity in the Midwest slowed significantly in March, to 55.9. That figure fell well short of February’s reading of 59.8 and the expectation of 59.0. The economic news picks up tomorrow, with the broader manufacturing activity due from the Institute for Supply Management at 10:00 A.M. (EDT). Investors should note that this Friday will bring data on employment and unemployment for the month of March. That report is expected to be closely watched by the Federal Reserve and market participants.

Speaking of the lead bank, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, in a speech at a Chicago community reinvestment conference, said that the recovery still feels like a recession to many Americans, and the central bank will keep its “extraordinary support for the economy for some time to come.” Those comments did not give much of a boost to equities, but did not hurt either.

Looking ahead to the afternoon, the bulls are looking like they will be tough to knock out of the driver’s seat. However, given the recent low trading volume and the aforementioned possibility of some further “window dressing” ahead of the quarter’s end, we would not be surprised if the bears made a move in in the second half of the session. They have already started to chip away at the earlier gains, as noted. Stay tuned. - William G. 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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Stocks to Watch from The Survey Corporate news is rather light as we wrap up the first quarter. On the earnings front, egg producer and distributor Cal-Maine Foods (CALM) has reported better-than-expected February-period results, thanks to higher prices and increased volumes, among other factors. Elsewhere, medical supplies company and Dow-30 component Johnson & Johnson (JNJFree Johnson & Johnson Stock Report) has agreed to sell its Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics unit to private-equity firm Carlyle Group for roughly $4 billion. JNJ shares are up slightly ahead of the bell, as a result. – Matthew E. Spencer 

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

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Before The Bell - U.S. stocks rose modestly on Friday, during the penultimate trading session of the first quarter, and appear headed for a nicely higher opening on this quarter-ending session this morning. A relatively good showing overnight in Asia, a slightly better market performance thus far in Europe this morning, and some optimism ahead of a rather busy week of economic data in the five days upcoming appear to be behind the upbeat early showing by the markets globally. 

Specifically, as we head into the final half hour before the market opens for business on our shores, we find that the Standard and Poor's 500 Index futures are ahead by more than 10 points and the NASDAQ futures are better by some 22 points. Bond yields, too, are rising, with the return on the 10-year Treasury note climbing to 2.75%.  

As for the first quarter, we saw a generally woeful opening month of the year, which was followed by a strong February for the most part, and then a mixed March, which, at various times, saw the bulls and the bears hold court. By the end of the quarter, and unless there is a big move today in one direction or another, the leading averages will have ended the initial period of 2014 just about where they began things.  

Specifically, through this past Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average retained a year-to-date loss of 1.5%; the NASDAQ was down by just 0.5%; while the Standard and Poor's 500 Index was up by that latter amount. The S&P Mid-Cap 400, meantime, was up 1.2%; and for good measure, the Russell 2000 was down 1.0%. Only the Dow Jones Utility Average, which retains a nifty 7.4% gain, which reflects a desire for yield and comparative safely, has shown much of a move. The Dow Transports, by comparison, are up a scant 0.7%. It has been that kind of quarter.

Among the principal influences have been the weather, highlighted by heavy snows and frigid temperatures throughout much of the span, the growing tensions between Russia and the West, slowing growth in China and the potential ramifications of that notable deceleration, and uncertainty at the Federal Reserve, as the lead bank winds down its aggressive monetary policies under its new leader, Janet Yellen.

Meanwhile, a new week and a new quarter loom ahead, with a heavy plate of economic offerings in the days to come. On point, after a fairly quiet day today, with just manufacturing results from the Chicago Fed, we will get data tomorrow morning on U.S. manufacturing during March. Tomorrow will also see results on March car sales and February construction spending. Then, we will get February factory orders on Wednesday and the international trade gap and non-manufacturing activity surveys on Thursday. Finally, the week concludes with March data on job growth and the unemployment rate on Friday. Non-farm payrolls are expected to have increased by 205,000 last month, a strong total and one that would compare favorably with February's estimated increase of 175,000. 

Overall, we should be looking at a busy week of telling reports and, at least initially, a very strong opening to the festivities on Wall Street. The now-ending quarter started out on a week note; we shall see how the period ends. Stay tuned. - Harvey S. Katz

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