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After The Close - The major U.S. equity indexes did little of note during the first half of the day, but there was a definitive negative undertone in place later in the morning and into the afternoon. Thus, it did not come as that big a surprise—especially with little U.S. news of substance for traders to run with today—that selling picked up in the latter stages of the session and the Monday/Tuesday stock market reversal, which had been the norm for much of this year, never materialized. At the closing bell, all of the major U.S. market averages were lower, with respective declines of 0.4%, 0.6%, and 0.5% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the NASDAQ, and the S&P 500 Index. The selling was a bit more pronounced in the mid- and small-cap markets, which, along with increased demand for gold and bonds today, would suggest that investors were shying away from adding more risk to their portfolios as the day wore on.

Investors should note that today marked the first time since February 3rd that the S&P 500 Index finished lower on consecutive days. This may be the case of some investors looking to take some profits off the table in a market that is overextended. Market participants should also note that The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said that small business sentiment slumped in February, on concerns about sales, the economy, and the labor market. This reading should not be overlooked, as the NFIB index and the broader S&P 500 Index, save for 2010 when the Federal Reserve began its aggressive bond-buying program, have moved in lock step, for the most part, over the last several years.

As noted, there was a definite negative bias to trading today, with declining issues more than doubling up advancers on the Big Board and ahead by nearly a three-to-one ratio on the NASDAQ. All of the major sectors were in the red, with the losses building for many in the last hour of trading, although stocks did edge off their session lows during the last few minutes.  The biggest laggards were the energy, basic materials, and industrial stocks. Those sectors, which are highly sensitive to global economic conditions, were once again hurt by yesterday’s weaker-than-expected trade data from China. A slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy would have far reaching global economic effects, and for that reason investors were moving out of the more-economically sensitive sectors the last few days. Specifically, it has not been a good few days for those investor’s long shares of metals and mining, oil and gas, and heavy electrical equipment companies. Likewise, those holding oil futures also were singing the blues today, as the price crude fell about 1.5% on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Thus far this week, most of trading here has been driven by news from overseas, particularly the geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe and China’s recent trade data. It has been very quiet stateside, with little noteworthy news from the earnings and economic fronts. That will not change until later this week when reports are due on retail sales (Thursday) and producer prices and consumer sentiment (Friday). However, there were still a few U.S. companies in the news today. Shares of General Motors (GM) fell after reports surfaced that a House subcommittee is investigating how the auto giant and a federal safety agency handled a deadly ignition switch problem in the company’s compact cars. Conversely, shares of embattled department store retailer J.C. Penney (JCP) rallied after the company’s stock received a ratings upgrade from a major brokerage house earlier today. We also learned today that the Men’s Wearhouse (MW)/ Joseph A. Bank (JOSB) soap opera may be coming to an end, as the two companies have finally agreed to a merger. - 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 U.S. stock market got off to a choppy start this morning, and despite a brief mid-morning rally, the tone remains quite tentative and has turned negative again. Meantime, at this point it does not look like the often seen Monday-Tuesday reversal will materialize. At just past noon in New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is off 37 points; the broader S&P 500 Index is down five points; but the technology-heavy NASDAQ is off three points. Market breadth suggests a slightly negative bias to today’s session, as declining issues are just ahead of advancers on the NYSE. Just a few market sectors are still making progress. There are slight gains in the technology area, thanks to advances in the computer hardware names. The healthcare group is also showing some relative strength. Nonetheless, the energy issues are a source of weakness. Notably, crude oil is trading lower, to just over $100 a barrel, and that may be playing a role.

Technically, the S&P 500 Index, while near new high ground, seems to be struggling to move higher. Given the formidable progress made in February, traders may need to take some time to get acclimated to the market at its current levels. Sentiment is largely unchanged today, as the VIX is up slightly to 14.29.

Traders received only one notable economic report this morning. Specifically, wholesale inventories rose 0.6% in the month of January, while analysts had been looking for smaller increase. Tomorrow, will also be a light day for news. It should be noted that traders do not generally respond well to information vacuums and the recent lack of economic news, coupled with the slower pace of corporate releases, does little to cheer up the bulls. In contrast, on Thursday things will pick up quite a bit with the release of the weekly jobless claims and monthly retail sales.

Finally, we received just a few notable earnings reports today. Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS) is seeing its stock trade higher, as the retailer put out a decent release. In the alternative power area, FuelCell Energy (FCEL) stock is up yet again, as investors were happy with that company’s figures. - 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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Stocks to Watch from The Survey Earnings season is largely over, but retailers, many of which have fiscal years that end in January, are still releasing quarterly financials and updating their outlooks for fiscal 2014. Two of the biggest disappointments came from apparel and accessories retailers Urban Outfitters (URBN) and American Eagle Outfitters (AEO), and both equities are trading notably lower ahead of the bell, as a result. Investors were more upbeat about January-period results and guidance from sporting goods seller Dick’s (DKS), however, and that stock is indicating a slightly higher opening this morning, in response. Still, the real winner looks to be FuelCell Energy (FCEL), a developer, manufacturer, and marketer of high-efficiency carbonate fuel cell technology for stationary electric power generation. Indeed, after climbing sharply in recent weeks, the stock is soaring in the premarket, thanks to January-quarter results that pleased investors, especially on the top line. Elsewhere, the stock of Boyd Gaming (BYD) is also surging ahead of the bell, after activist investor Elliot Associates disclosed a 5% stake in the casino operator. – 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 - Another week, another weak Monday. In fact, yesterday made it back-to-back first trading days of the week in which the U.S. stock market headed lower, with the latest and much milder reversal, relative to the prior Monday, being set into motion by a succession of dispiriting events, including further worries about Ukraine and the allied problem of Crimea, and Russia's likely intent of annexing the latter region, slowing economic growth in China, and rather lofty valuations. Throw in some cautious monetary talk by a Federal Reserve official, on the likely pace of monetary tapering, and we had the makings of a generally lower day on Wall Street, but, as noted, not nearly the reversal of seven days earlier.

As to the problems, we saw a surprise report showing a decline in exports out of China last month, following a gain in January. Also, there has been no progress in defusing the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea; in fact, things may be getting worse, as Russia seems bent on annexing the latter region. Also, as the bull market celebrates its fifth anniversary, and as the Standard and Poor's 500 Index approaches the 1,900 level, some pundits are expressing valuation concerns once more. In fact, a number of brokerage houses already have seen this broad large-cap index eclipse its 2014 anticipated bull market highs.

As to China, as we noted yesterday, exports out of the world's second largest economy fell by 18% last month, more than reversing a 10.6% gain in January. Expectations had been for an increase of 5% in February. That weaker performance took the measure of a number of steel and diversified metals companies. That group notably underperformed the stock market during the session, which in all saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average give back a modest 34 points, boosted by a late rally that helped pared the early deficit materially; the Standard and Poor's 500 Index ease by just a point; and the NASDAQ close down by two points. Meanwhile, the small- and mid-cap indexes did proportionately worse on the day in a sloppy opening to the second full week of March. However, they, too, closed well up from their mid-session lows.     

All of this took place with few earnings reports or economic distractions to muddy up the waters, as fourth-quarter reporting season has nearly wrapped up, save for a few straggling retailers, who typically conclude their fiscal years on January 31st. Also, there was little in the way of new economic data. That will likewise be the case today and tomorrow. Then, on Thursday, we are due to get weekly and continuing jobless claims figures and February retail sales, a metric that is forecast to show a slight uptick in spite of the harsh winter weather suffered throughout the country last month. Finally, on Friday, the government will issue its monthly report on producer, or wholesale, price inflation. Then, some 75 minutes later, the University of Michigan will issue its findings on consumer sentiment.

Now, as we look ahead to a new day, which, as noted, will again see an absence of economic reports on our shores, we find that the global markets put in a mostly subdued session overnight and early this morning. In all, they seemed to struggle for direction amid a paucity of economic data. Meanwhile, at home, our equity futures have reversed some earlier and rather modest losses, and are starting to edge a bit higher, especially the NASDAQ, which is now up about four points. Thus, we could see a Monday-Tuesday reversal, as we had last week, albeit with much less flare when successive triple-digit point moves were experienced in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Finally, as we alluded to earlier, with the stock market this high, we are seeing some cautionary flags being raised. Of course, we have seen such red flags before, only to have the stock market press higher still. Also, this is still a good time of year for equities, with the market often showing seasonal strength through March and April, only starting to retrench in May. Thus, we could still go higher from here. - Harvey S. Katz   

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