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After The Close - Stocks closed lower in the first week of trading in April, after a strenuous first quarter that saw many of the major market indexes advance by double-digit percentages. The week started out on an up note on Monday, but selling pressure began on Tuesday and continued into Wednesday and a good part of Thursday as a couple of negatives surfaced. 

First, after simmering for a while, Europe’s woes look as though they may be coming to a boil again, with serious economic difficulties in Spain now drawing the spotlight. There is rising uncertainty as to whether Spain can muddle through its problems without outside assistance. Smaller European members Ireland, Portugal, and Greece have already been bailed out. But providing financial assistance to a nation the size of Spain could prove a much larger drain. It may not come to that, but the selloff in equities, as well as the euro, in recent days reflects the increasing concerns. 

Indications that the Federal Reserve is less inclined to provide further monetary stimulus at this time are also weighing on investor sentiment. But no need for stimulus could be a plus for stocks in time, if the economic recovery proves self-sustaining.

In the meantime, there was some good business news today that helped stocks fight back from the bearish feeling that had developed, as weekly jobless claims came in at a level suggesting payrolls are expanding nicely. This morning’s chain store sales figures also indicated consumer spending is picking up. 

At the close, stocks were mixed to lower, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average off 15 points, but the NASDAQ ahead by 12 points. Still, more stocks fell than advanced. And, for the holiday-shortened week, the Dow lost more than 150 points and the NASDAQ fell 12 points.

Tomorrow, the stock market will be closed for the Good Friday holiday while trading in bonds ends at noon (EDT). Nevertheless, the important monthly government employment report, due out at 8:30 a.m. (EDT), is expected to show a healthy gain in jobs of around 210,000. Strong growth in jobs these past several months has been one of the keys to this year’s rally on Wall Street. More good economic news and some positive surprises on the corporate profit front when earnings season begins next will presumably be needed for stocks to resume their upward trend. It would also help if the situation in Europe doesn’t get any worse. Meanwhile, we wish everyone a happy and safe holiday weekend. - Robert Mitkowksi

   
At the time this article was written, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.

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12:30 PM ET - The U.S. stock market opened lower this morning, but has since moved into mixed territory. Some of the early weakness in our market may have been due to a choppy session on the Continent. Notably, the bourses there suffered a severe drop yesterday, as renewed concerns about sovereign debt, and a possible recession surfaced.

Meanwhile, the economic news on our shores has probably helped improve trader’s sentiment. This morning, the Labor Department reported that initial jobless claims for the week ended March 31st came in at 357,000, which roughly matched the consensus view. Weekly continuing claims also declined, which further suggests that the employment situation is firming up. Tomorrow, the Nonfarm Payrolls report for the month of March is due out, which should shed further light on the situation. 

In corporate news, shares of Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) are trading higher after the retailer posted strong quarterly results. Also, PPG Industries (PPG) is seeing its stock move ahead after the company issued decent results and raised guidance. With the first quarter now over, we will be getting some preannouncements, as well as actual reports soon. This will be important, since the guidance here will set the tone for the next several months.

At roughly noon in New York, the equity markets are, as noted, mixed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is still down seven points (-0.1%); the S&P 500 Index is ahead just slightly; and the NASDAQ is up eight points (0.63%).  Market breadth shows little direction, as advancers and decliners are about even on the NYSE. The consumer sector is advancing. The technology stocks are also having a good session aided by Apple (AAPL). In contrast, there is some weakness in the conglomerates. The utilities, which have been laggards for most of the year, are also off quite a bit.

Notably, yesterday’s selloff was quite orderly. Trading volumes did not increase too much, which is a good sign. Moreover, we did see some bargain hunters move in during the afternoon yesterday, and that behavior is important, since it indicates that there are still investors on the sidelines, waiting for opportunities to enter the market at better prices. This probably also indicates that as long as the economic and corporate news remains positive, a correction, if it should occur, may be short lived.

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 – Constellation Brands (STZ), a producer and marketer of wine, spirits, and beer, has reported February-period results and an outlook for fiscal 2012 that disappointed investors, causing the stock to move lower in the premarket.

A host of retailers, including Target (TGT), The Gap (GPS), Limited Brands (LTD) and Macy’s (M), reported comparable-store sales for the month of March this morning. The results were generally good, due in part to mild weather and the timing of Easter. Costco (COST) was one of the few retailers to disappoint. 

Casual-dining operator Ruby Tuesday (RT) saw its shares tumble in premarket trading today. The company released February-period results after the market closed yesterday that fell short of investors’ expectations, especially on the top line. – 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 - When the French critic, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890) coined the phrase, "the more things change, the more they stay the same,'' he might well have had the euro-zone debt problems in mind. And if he didn't he should have, as just after the global markets finished, at least for the time being, with Greece's vexing problems, here comes Spain, a materially larger component of the 17-nation economic confederation, known as the European Union.

In truth, Spain's woes are by no means as encompassing as those of Greece. However, being that the former is a much larger nation from an economic perspective, its problems could, in the end, be as concerning, if not more so. And Spain's recent debt auction, unfortunately, did not go especially well, as less borrowed capital was raised and at higher interest rates than at first surmised would be the case.

The poor news out of Spain, in fact, contributed to weak performances by the principal European bourses the past two trading sessions, and helped contribute to some notable spillover on our shores, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average, following a generally mild pullback on Tuesday, fell more definitively yesterday, surrendering 125 points, after being down by almost 180 points earlier in the day. Now, those same European stocks are falling anew, losing a modest amount of further ground this morning. And, right on cue, our futures are heading a little lower, as well, surrendering about five points on the S&P 500 Index futures and three points on the NASDAQ, presaging a moderately lower start for equities in about a half hour from now.

The U.S. stock market declines, which have been partly, but by no means exclusively, precipitated by the falloff in confidence in Spain's finances, have also been occasioned by the release, on Tuesday afternoon, of the minutes of the March 13th Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. At that time, it was affirmed that the Fed is now less disposed to initiate further monetary easing maneuvers. Add to that some less-than-compelling economic metrics on our shores, notably an underwhelming showing by the non-manufacturing sector in March, and it would seem as though we have the makings of at least a mild pullback in the equity market.

However, most of the U.S. economic news has been supportive, and that trend has continued this morning, with the government's report of a decline of some 6,000 in weekly jobless claims. That metric is now down near a four-year low at 357,000. Meantime, continuing claims also fell, suggesting, along with a fairly positive report on private-sector payrolls released yesterday by ADP (ADP), that tomorrow's Labor Department release on employment and unemployment could well be constructive. Current estimates have those numbers coming in at 210,000 and 8.3%, respectively.

Thus, although we seem to be in a modest market retreat at this time, the losses should be contained, assuming that first-quarter earnings season, which is due to commence next week with the release of results from aluminum maker and Dow-30 component Alcoa (AAFree Alcoa Stock Report) is reasonably positive. With stocks where they are, though, it would not take too many profit misses to produce a more serious selloff. In any event, we want to wish all of our loyal readers happy and healthy Easter and Passover holidays starting this weekend. – Harvey S. Katz          

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