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After The Close - The U.S. stock market put in a somewhat choppy and directionless session today. At the close of the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 31 points; the broader S&P 500 Index was relatively unchanged; and the technology-heavy NASDAQ was off 16 points. There was a somewhat weak tone to the session, as declining issues outnumbered advancers by a narrow margin on the NYSE. Moreover, almost all of the market sectors lost some ground. There were sharp losses in the basic materials group, as the mining stocks fell out of favor. The technology names were quite weak, too, with losses in the software issues. In contrast, there was some relative strength in the energy area today, with the large integrated oil and gas names bucking the downtrend. These equities may have also benefited from rising crude oil prices today.

Technically, the stock market has been able to hold its recent gains, which is encouraging. The S&P 500 Index is near new high ground, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is gradually progressing in that direction, too. Some fatigue may be setting in among the bulls, and a small rest may be in order. But, the general direction appears to be up, even if the market seems “overbought” by some measures. Sentiment was largely unchanged today, as the VIX was just slightly higher to 14.22.

Meanwhile, traders received major economic news this morning. Specifically, non-farm payrolls increased by 175,000 in the month of February, which was better than many had anticipated. The reading was somewhat impressive, given the harsh winter weather that gripped much of the country. It should be noted that the headline unemployment rate inched up to 6.7%, where analysts had been looking for it to hold steady at 6.6%.  For the most part, the release did not move the market much, and there was little speculation that these figures would alter the Fed’s outlook. Moreover, we also received the January trade balance figures, which held no major surprises.

We received a few earnings reports this morning. Shares of Big Lots (BIG) traded up sharply, after the retailer’s results impressed investors. Also, Footlocker (FL) stock headed higher after that company put out a healthy report. - 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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12:15 PM EST - The major U.S. indexes were notably higher at the start of trading, with most of the upside due to a better-than-expected February nonfarm payrolls figure (more below) that was issued at 8:30 A.M. (EST). However, as the morning progressed, the earlier gains, for the most part, were given back, with most of the major averages—save for the notable Dow Jones Industrial Average, which is now slightly higher, but still way off of its high of 16,505—now in negative territory. Overall, the initial mixed showing for equities has turned negative, with the once razor thin margin between advancing and declining issues now tilted in favor of the latter on both the Big Board and the NASDAQ.

From a sector perspective, it is now all down arrows for the top-10 groups. The biggest laggards are the basic materials, healthcare, telecommunications, and utilities issues. There may be a case of some sector rotation prompting the selling in the latter two areas. Investors could be thinking that the better-than-expected jobs report will give the Fed more ammunition to continue tapering its bond buying, which would probably push interest rates higher in the months ahead. The subsequent higher-yielding and safer fixed-income securities would become an attractive alternative to high-yielding utilities and telecom issues. Meantime, today’s setback in the basic materials space is due to heavy selling in the precious metals and mining areas. Investors, though, should note that the Dow Transports did briefly set a record high earlier today.

Even with a pickup in selling in the last hour, trading is moving into the second half of the session with the Dow 30 and the S&P 500 Index on track for their fourth five-day advance in the last five weeks. As noted, the latest employment report from the Department of Labor, which showed an increase of 175,000 jobs in February, was ahead of the consensus expectation. The labor figures, along a better-than-expected report on manufacturing activity from the Institute for Supply Management on Monday, has alleviated some growing concerns about the economy, though many market participants have brushed some weaker economic data of late as being hurt by unfavorable winter weather through a good deal of the country. Today’s other economic report of note on the trade gap was also viewed favorably by the market, as it showed that the trade gap held rather steady in January, with exports on the rise.

Meantime, there was some non-economic news of note this morning. We are seeing some big moves today on earnings news. Of note, shares of Big Lots (BIG), Stage Stores, and Skullcandy (SKUL) have soared on their latest quarterly results. Conversely, there is selling of the stocks of Analogic Corp. (ALOG) and Alaska Communications (ALSK) after those companies reported disappointing earnings results. In non-earnings news, shares of The Gap (GPS) are trading lower after the retailer reported a drop in its same-store sales figures for February. Investors should note the performance of Coupon.com (COUP), which went public today. The Coupon.com initial public offering was the first technology IPO of this year. Investors are bidding the stock up sharply.

The U.S. economic news has overshadowed news from Eastern Europe thus far today, but the situation in that region is still very fluid, and any breaking geopolitical news could have a big impact on the world equity markets, as we saw earlier this week. Just this morning, reports surfaced that Russia’s military staged its largest air defense exercise in the last 24 hours, and the country would back Crimea if it wants to separate from Ukraine and join Russia. - 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 Earnings reports continue to trickle in, and today’s big winners appear to be headphone designer and distributer Skullcandy (SKUL) and discount retailer Big Lots (BIG). Both companies delivered better-than-expected results from their most-recent periods, and each stock is soaring in pre-market trading, in response. Other equities indicating higher openings this morning on earnings news include grocer The Fresh Market (TFM) and athletic footwear retailer Foot Locker (FL).

Not all quarterly reports were upbeat, however, including those from precision instruments company Analogic (ALOG) and tax preparer H&R Block (HRB). Both issues are moving lower in the premarket, with ALOG showing considerable weakness. Shares of The Gap (GPS) are also headed for a lower opening when trading begins, after the apparel and accessories retailer released disappointing sales figures for the month of February.

On the M&A front, an affiliate of private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management has struck a deal to acquire supermarket operator Safeway (SWY) for roughly $40 a share in cash and stock. In February, Safeway announced that it was in discussions regarding a potential sale, so investors were not caught off guard by this latest news. SWY stock is actually moving modestly lower ahead of the bell, in response. - 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 - The stock market resumed its upward march yesterday morning following a one-day pause, in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average had led the way modestly lower with a 36-point setback. However, after the aforementioned brief respite, stocks rose anew, cresting with a morning gain of some 90 points in that blue-chip composite.

However, the other averages did not join in to any great extent, though the more broadly configured Standard and Poor's 500 Index did manage to hit another all-time high during the session, finally ending the day with a small advance. However, the NASDAQ was in the red for much of the morning, before securing a modest gain and another multi-year high by the middle of the day. However, that index soon wilted again and moved lower as the mid-afternoon droned on, but never fell too far from the neutral line, finally ending the session off by just a half dozen points. The Standard and Poor's Mid-Cap 400 added a point, while the small-cap Russell 2000 lost that much, in a virtual standoff for the more speculative groups. The Dow, meantime, held onto relatively moderate gains throughout. Still, that composite remains more than a hundred points from its best levels ever. 

Helping the market retain some selective strength throughout much of the session was better economic news--specifically a modest drop in jobless claims and a feeling of relief that a worse outcome has not yet come to pass in Ukraine. On point, jobless claims fell by a larger-than-expected amount in the latest week, declining to 323,000 in the seven days ended on March 1st. That was a drop of 26,000. As with other recent reports, which include data on non-manufacturing activity and retail spending, the results have been skewed by the harsh weather running across much of the nation over the past two months, or so. At the same time, the situation in Ukraine seems to have cooled down just a bit over the past 48 hours, although the potential for a flare-up is always there, especially given the very hard feelings among the principals involved.

Also influencing the day's trading were a few remaining earnings reports, mostly from the retail sector, where fiscal years typically end in late January. Here, for example, we saw some dour metrics from office supplies behemoth Staples (SPLS), which saw its shares trade lower by some 15% during much of the day as the company reported not only declines in sales and traffic in its fiscal fourth quarter, but also forecast a sales decline in the first fiscal quarter of 2014 and said it would close some 225 stores by the end of 2015. Also weakening, but to a much lesser degree, were the shares of wholesale club retailer Costco (COST), as its fiscal second quarter net declined by 15%. Otherwise, it was a relatively quiet day following some frenetic trading to start the week and ahead of this morning's key data on U.S. job creation and the unemployment rate for February, as well as January's international trade gap (more below). 

Thus, as we look ahead to the final day of the week, and after yesterday's 62-point increase in the Dow and a lesser uptick in the Standard and Poor's 500 Index, we find that stocks were mostly higher in Asia overnight, while in Europe, the principal bourses are tracking a bit lower at this hour. Over here, meanwhile, just-issued data showed that the nation added 175,000 jobs in February, which was above the latest expectation of just under 150,000 new payrolls, while the U.S. jobless rate edged up from 6.6% in January to 6.7% in the latest month. At the same time, the international trade deficit edged up to $39.1 billion in January from the $39.0 billion figure in December. That latter number was upwardly revised from the $38.7 billion initially estimated for that month. As to the equity futures, they are up strongly in the wake of the better-than-expected job creation figures, with the S&P 500 Index futures ahead by more than 10 points and the NASDAQ futures climbing by 13 points, presaging a strong opening when traders get going in about a half hour from now.

As we look ahead, meanwhile, the economic landscape is still dominated by the woeful weather that has affected large swaths of the country since late November. It has been more than a four-month stretch of record low temperatures and heavy snowfall, which has made travel difficult and costly and disrupted other forms of activity. Our sense is that even with the better employment growth figures that GDP will increase by less than 2% in the current quarter. - Harvey S. Katz 

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