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After the Close - The major U.S. equity indexes, which traded in a tight band around the neutral line for much of the morning hours, broke out in the second half of the session and moved nicely higher before weakening a bit by the close. Still, at the final bell, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the NASDAQ, and the S&P 500 Index were up 60, 16, and six points, respectively, with the Dow-30 and the S&P 500 setting additional intra-day records. Overall, advancing issues led decliners on both the Big Board and the NASDAQ.

Pushing the equity market higher today was a strong showing from the blue-chip stocks, with notable gains turned in by Caterpillar (CAT - Free Caterpillar Stock Report), Microsoft (MSFT - Free Microsoft Stock Report), Intel (INTC - Free Intel Stock Report), and Cisco Systems (CSCO - Free Cisco Stock Report). From a sector perspective, leadership came from the basic materials area, which has been a laggard over the last few months. In the basic materials space, the mining, precious metals, and steel issues were sharply higher, with recent laggards Cliffs Natural Resources (CLF) and U.S. Steel (X) among the gainers. Also helping the basic materials group was a stellar performance from the stock of First Solar (FSLR), which soared after the solar panel maker issued a better-than-expected 2013 outlook and solid predictions for the next two years.

Meanwhile, the basic materials stocks did not lack companionship in the latest session, with most of the 10 major sectors in positive territory. A nice move higher was also made by the energy, telecommunications, and technology groups. Technology did not get much of a boost from the shares of industry behemoths Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG), but saw the semiconductor stocks gain, notably Intel.  

The moved higher for equities came on a day that was rather quiet on both the economic and earnings fronts. We did get favorable data on wholesale inventories from the Department of Commerce. Specifically, February 2013 sales of merchant wholesalers were up 1.7%, while inventories were down 0.3% from the revised January level. While this report is not considered a game changer, it was an encouraging one nonetheless. Meantime, the headline report on a light earnings day was a mixed release from aluminum maker Alcoa (AA - Free Alcoa Stock Report) after yesterday’s market close. Shares of the Dow-30 component were relatively unchanged on the earnings report, which officially kicked off the first-quarter earnings season. Investors, though, should note that the bulk of the earnings reports do not begin to flow in until early next week. Still, Dow-30 component and banking giant JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Free JPMorgan Stock Report) releases its quarterly results on Friday morning.

Meantime, the buying was not confined to just the equity market today. Those long commodities also had a lot to cheer about, with most of the commodities up nicely. May contracts for oil, as well as April gold futures were each up nearly 1%. Other notable gainers included contracts for corn, oats, soybeans, and cocoa.   - 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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12:30 PM EDT - The stock market put in a choppy session this morning. However, as we pass the noon hour in New York, the major averages are making a push into positive territory. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 23 points (0.2%); the S&P 500 Index is ahead two points (0.1%); and the tech-laden NASDAQ is up three points (0.1%). Market breadth suggests a slightly positive bias, as advancing stocks are just nominally ahead of decliners on the NYSE.

There is considerable strength in the basic materials names today, thanks to large gains in the metals and mining issues. This may have to do with a mostly favorable report from Alcoa (AA - Free Alcoa Stock Report) released yesterday after the closing bell. Further, the metals markets may be getting a lift from reports in Asia last night. Specifically, China’s latest CPI provided a tame reading on inflation, suggesting that interest rates will likely remain low, and expansion will continue there. Notably, China consumes a large amount of the global commodity output, and plays a vital role in this sector. The energy issues are also doing well, with advances in the alternative energy names. In contrast, there is weakness in the consumer cyclical stocks.

Technically, the S&P 500 Index is still consolidating in a range that spans from about 1,540 to 1,570. Yesterday’s up move, which largely came in the afternoon, did show that traders are still interested in equities. But, it should be noted that volumes were a bit lacking.

There was one lone economic release today. Wholesale inventories for the month of February declined 0.3%, where a small increase had been expected. Tomorrow the news is minimal, too. But, the FOMC minutes from the March meeting are due out and some traders will likely concentrate on that.

As previously noted, Dow component Alcoa reported results yesterday afternoon. The aluminum giant‘s profits exceeded consensus Wall Street expectations, but the top line was a bit lighter than some had anticipated. The company did maintain a healthy outlook, and that may be driving the overall sector higher. However, “Wall Street” is still a divided on Alcoa, which is trading lower today. Elsewhere in the basic materials sector, A. Schulman (SHLM) shares are off sharply, after the specialty chemical company posted weaker-than-expected earnings on a healthy top line advance. But, shares of Cliffs Natural Resources (CLF) and U.S. Steel (X) are higher. In retail, J.C. Penny (JCP) shares are down considerably, after the discount department store operator announced changes to its management team. -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 (AAFree Alcoa Stock Report) released March-period results. The company’s performance was mixed, as investors seemed reasonably reassured by earnings but revenues missed the mark. The stock is trading modestly lower in the premarket as a result. Elsewhere, shares of J.C. Penney (JCP) are indicating a sharply lower opening this morning, after the department store operator fired its CEO, Ron Johnson, replacing him with his predecessor, Myron Ullman. In a move that garnered much fanfare and attention, Mr. Johnson was wooed away from Apple (AAPL) 17 months ago and tasked with turning the struggling retailer around. However, Mr. Johnson may have tried to change too much too quickly, and sales plunged while he attempted to orchestrate a costly revamp of the business. – 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 - The stock market started the new week on an early down note, as continuing worries about the eroding situation across parts of Europe and the disturbing employment situation at home, which was underscored by the report issued last Friday showing that just 88,000 jobs had been created in March, took the measure of the bulls. However, that somber mood was gone within a few hours and the market gradually turned higher, ending the first day of the new week on a notably positive note. All told, the late push helped the Dow Jones Industrial Average to add 48 points and the NASDAQ to rise 18 points. 

Helping to underpin equities was optimism ahead of the kickoff of the latest earnings season. That pending start will begin slowly this week, but start it will, as evidenced by the release, after the close yesterday, of slightly better-than-expected earnings results from aluminum giant Alcoa (AA - Free Alcoa Stock Report). Unfortunately, that better profit showing was more than offset by a revenue shortfall and some uncertain forward guidance by the company, with that stock indicating a modestly weaker start to the session today. 

Looking ahead, the pace of earnings will pick up late in the week, when two giant banking houses, JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Free JPMorgan Stock Report) and Wells Fargo (WFC), will issue their profit statements. In between, we will get reports from several retailers, notably Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) and Family Dollar Stores (FDO).

As to the economy, the days ahead will also be comparatively light, but we will see data on weekly and continuing jobless claims. Those metrics are due out this Thursday morning. Then, on Friday, we will get monthly reports on retail sales and producer prices. Finally, a bit later on Friday, the University of Michigan will report on consumer sentiment for the past two weeks.

All of this aside, the news beat figures to be relatively quiet this week, and that should be mirrored by rather tame performances on Wall Street. Stocks are relatively high at this time, having rallied almost unrelentingly since December, and we could be ready for a pause, or some overdue profit taking at any time. But many investors are worried about missing the next move higher, and seem to be entering the fray on the long side just as soon as we get any selloff, no matter how minor. That appears to be what evolved over the course of the session yesterday. Just how long this sort of positive action will go on is likely to be a function of earnings, which are expected to be better, but not by much.    

As to the markets overseas this morning, they are showing nice gains in Europe thus far, with the bourses in London, Frankfurt, and Paris all gaining, while on our shores, the Standard and Poor's 500 Index futures are ahead by more than three and a half points, while the NASDAQ futures are in the plus column by eight and a half points. Such action presages an extension of yesterday's late rally into the early going today.

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