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After The Close - The U.S. stock market managed to make solid progress earlier today, but retreated in the afternoon. At the end of the session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished up 19 points; while the broader S&P 500 Index ended up slightly; and the technology-heavy NASDAQ was up four points. Market breadth was largely mixed, with advancing stocks just slightly ahead of decliners on the NYSE. The market sectors were mostly divided, too. There was leadership in some of the consumer stocks, as was the case yesterday. The technology issues performed well, helped by a solid showing in the semiconductor companies. In contrast, there was some weakness in the energy sector, with losses in the exploration names. The financial issues also slipped a bit, hurt by declines in the mortgage area.

Technically, the stock market may be hitting some resistance, as it makes its way into new high ground. Specifically, the S&P 500 Index hit record levels yesterday, and we are now waiting for some follow-through on the part of the bulls. Given the large advances we have seen over the past month, it is not unusual that some caution might set in. Further, with the fourth-quarter earnings season now coming to a close, it is not clear what will serve as a catalyst to push stocks higher. The VIX rose a bit, to just over 14, today, suggesting that traders may be turning a bit more apprehensive.

Investors received some favorable economic news today, and that may have helped fuel the market’s advance earlier. New home sales came in at 468,000 units, annualized, for the month of January. This reading was well ahead of the consensus forecast and sharply higher than the upwardly revised 427,000 units sold in December. The news shows that the recovery in this vital area remains intact, even as mortgage rates have inched up over the past several months. Tomorrow, we get a look at the employment situation, as the weekly initial and continuing jobless claims are due out.

In corporate news, there are a few earnings reports worth noting. Shares of Lowe’s (LOW) are trading higher, after the home-improvement retailer put out a decent release. Shares of Target (TGT) are rising, too, as Wall Street seemed pleased with that company’s report. Notably, that stock had fallen sharply over the past several months, on news of a credit-card security breach. -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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12:30 PM EST - Following a brief dip into negative territory at the start of Wednesday’s session, all three of the major U.S. equity indexes rallied to the upside, but have since backed off their highs for the day at the noon hour in New York. The NASDAQ held the lead among the bunch, rising just over half a percentage point. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 were not far behind, however, each showing a gain of around a quarter percent at mid-day. The latter, it should be noted, was trading within a couple of points of its closing high set on January 15th.

Investors were apparently encouraged by a better-than-expected report on housing for January. Specifically, the Commerce Department announced that sales of new single-family homes raced ahead by 9.6% last month, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 468,000 units. This was well ahead of analyst expectations of a decline to 401,000 homes (versus the upwardly revised 427,000-unit pace in December 2013), and marked the highest level in over five years. On a year-over-year basis, January sales were up 2.2%.

While this was welcome news, new home sales are only a small part of the residential market, and other recent housing stats have been less inspiring. Last week, it was reported that January sales of existing homes fell to a one and a half year low, while housing starts posted their largest drop in almost three years. And today we received word that new home loan applications were down 4% last week, sequentially, marking their lowest level in nearly two decades.

Elsewhere, despite an apparent lack of negative catalysts, the mood was decidedly less upbeat across the Atlantic, as the key European bourses quickly fell into the red at the start of their trading sessions and stayed there. Stocks largely moved in lockstep throughout the day, with London’s FTSE, Germany’s DAX, and France’s CAC-40 all down by just over one-third of a percentage point. - Mario Ferro

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

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Stocks to Watch from The Survey – Retailers, many with fiscal years that end in January, are emerging in the earnings spotlight. Bright spots from this most recent batch of financials include quarterly results from teen apparel retailer Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF), home improvement center Lowe’s (LOW), big-box retailer Target (TGT), and book seller Barnes & Noble (BKS). All of these stocks are indicating higher openings this morning, as a result. Other issues moving higher ahead of the bell on earnings news include home beverage carbonation systems maker SodaStream (SODA), cable television operator Cablevision Systems (CVC), and brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD).

On the other hand, investors took issue with quarterly reports from discount retailer Dollar Tree (DLTR)and apparel seller The TJX Companies (TJX), causing both equities to move lower ahead of the bell. The biggest disappointments came from outside the retail sector, however. Indeed, shares of movie studio DreamWorks Animation (DWA)and solar panel manufacturer First Solar (FSLR) are both down sharply in the premarket on earnings news.

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 bulls, who easily won the daily tug of war with the bears on Monday, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average scored a triple-digit gain, even though it did back off somewhat near the close, fought to a near draw yesterday, succumbing in the end to some disappointment on the economic front and closing lower. However, the final loss in that blue chip composite was minimal, with a 27-point downtick. The other principal averages also backed off just slightly, as can be seen in the nominally weaker showing by most mutual funds.   

All told, in addition to the Dow, the NASDAQ and the Standard and Poor's 500 Index eased by just five and two points, respectively, while the small- and mid-cap indexes edged just a bit lower, as well. Moreover, losing issues, while holding a plurality over gaining stocks on the Big Board and the NASDAQ, saw that edge narrow by the end of the session. It was basically a day for largely marking time.

As to the disappointing economic news, the Conference Board, a New York-based research group, saw its Consumer Confidence Index back off a bit in February, scoring a result of 78.1 for the month. That was off from January's 79.4. A small gain to 79.8 had been the forecast. It should be noted that January's figure was revised down from 80.7 to the aforementioned 79.4. A reading above 90 is considered healthy. So, although confidence levels have come back significantly over the past few years, they still are lower than optimal. The small decline was driven largely by a weaker score on the Expectations component, which fell from 80.8 to 75.7. By comparison, the Present Situations reading climbed from 77.3 to 81.7. It is very rare for the Present Situation sector to be above that for Expectations. Thus, the latest month suggests some pessimism going forward.  

Meanwhile, after an uneventful start to the day's trading, the market fell abruptly just after the release of the confidence data, but as this report, along with most of the other recent metrics--which, too, were disappointing--have been largely dismissed as weather related, the bulls were able to make a stand. In fact, by the middle of the day, the averages had rallied a bit, even getting modestly into the black before falling back somewhat in the final hour, or so. But, as noted, the damage was limited.

As to other economic news, today will see the issuance of data on new home sales. That report, from the Commerce Department, will be out some 30 minutes into the trading day, and is expected to show a weather-related decline to just over 400,000 units on an annualized basis. Then, tomorrow we will see reports on weekly jobless claims and durable goods orders for January. Finally, Friday will see a key report on regional manufacturing (out of Chicago) and revised fourth-quarter GDP figures. A notable downward revision in this latter metric, from the initially estimated growth of 3.2% to a gain of less than 2.5%, is the consensus estimate for the latest period.

Finally, as we look out to a new day, we find that stocks were mixed in Asia overnight, with a setback in Japan highlighting the uneven session, while equities are somewhat lower in Europe this morning. Over here, however, the futures are suggesting some early buying when the markets open in less than a half hour from now. Where we go from here is uncertain. But the signals are encouraging, as the market has rallied nicely this month following the moderate selloff in January. All told, most of the key averages are poised at, or near, all-time highs. - Harvey S. Katz

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