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After The Close - As had been the case for much of the week on Wall Street, there was once again a notable disparity between the performances of two of the major U.S. equity indexes. The Dow Jones Industrial Average performed solidly on the strength of gains in Caterpillar (CAT - Free Caterpillar Stock Report), International Business Machines (IBM - Free IBM Stock Report), and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT - Free Wal-Mart Stock Report), adding 81 points in the week’s final session. However, the NASDAQ was off today, with selling pressure from technology behemoth Apple (AAPL) weighing on the index—though some selective final-hour buying did pare a portion of the earlier losses. It was the worst five-day stretch for Apple stock since 2010. The broader S&P 500 Index added four points, with most of the gain coming in the final few minutes. Overall, declining issues led advancers on the NASDAQ, while the latter held an edge on the Big Board. 

Today’s trading pattern was a bit of a microcosm of the five-day stretch. This week, the Dow Jones Industrials were 1.0% higher, while the NASDAQ fell 1.1%. The S&P 500 Index ended the week not far from where it started, with a slight tick to the upside. A mixed bag of data on the economy (more below) and little noteworthy news on the looming fiscal cliff negotiations made for a rather directionless week of trading on Wall Street.

From a sector perspective, nearly all of the 10 major groups finished in positive territory today, with a smidgen of leadership coming the basic materials and consumer noncyclical areas. Conversely, owing to the aforementioned weakness in Apple, it was a struggle for technology stocks. In addition to Apple’s setback, it was a dour day for those who held shares of Analogic (ALOG), QUALCOMM (QCOM), and First Solar (FSLR).

On the economic front, investors received some mixed data. Before the commencement of trading on these shores, the Labor Department reported that non-farm payrolls increased by a better-than-expected 146,000 and the nation’s unemployment rate fell to 7.7%, its lowest level since December, 2008. All in all, it was an encouraging report on this long-struggling sector. However, at 10:00 A.M. (EST), the news on consumer sentiment was not encouraging. Specifically, the University of Michigan’s preliminary consumer sentiment survey for December came in at 74.5, which was lower than the 82.7 registered in November and notably worse than the consensus expectation of 82.4. According to the survey, consumers are concerned about spending big with the looming fiscal cliff of tax increases and spending cuts still very much in play. This is not a good scenario, especially when taking into account that the all-important holiday shopping season is in full gear.

Elsewhere, the major European bourses were able to rally off of early lows, with help from the aforementioned surprisingly good report on the U.S. labor market. London’s FTSE-100 and Paris’ CAC-40 finished the session modestly higher, while Frankfurt’s DAX ended nominally lower. Germany’s stock market was under pressure after the Bundesbank lowered its 2013 real GDP growth forecast from 1.6% to just 0.4%. The nation’s central bank also warned about the possibility of a recession for the euro zone’s largest economy. Meantime, after trading commenced on the Continent, reports surfaced that Greece's three biggest banks had agreed to participate in a large bond buyback scheme that aims to chip away at the crisis-hit nation’s debt load and ensure it continues to get bailout loans. This news is a positive development in the country’s attempt to avoid defaulting on its obligations, a scenario that could have far-reaching consequences for the world’s financial markets.

Turning back to these shores, next week will bring several more reports on the U.S. economy, including data on the trade gap (Tuesday), producer prices, weekly unemployment claims, and retail sales (Thursday), and consumer prices and industrial production (Friday). Investors should also note that the Federal Open Market Committee is meeting on Tuesday to discuss monetary policy, with the biggest issues on the table being the possible expiration of "Operation Twist" and a potential change in interest-rate guidelines. Meantime, the earnings news will remain nondescript, with the only notable reporters being Scholastic Corp (SCHL), Dollar General (DG), Casey's General Stores (CASY), Costco Wholesale (COST), Joy Global (JOY), and Adobe Systems (ADBE). In a nutshell, there are no heavy hitters in the group to push the market forcefully in either direction.   - 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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12:20 PM EST - The U.S. stock market got off to a strong start this morning, on a positive employment report, but started retreating shortly after the session started. The averages are now mixed. At just past noon in New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up about 29 points (0.2%); the S&P 500 Index is off by about one point; and the NASDAQ, which is lagging today, is shedding 20 points (-0.7%). Market breadth is once again mixed, as declining stocks are mildly outnumbering advancers on the NYSE. Positive leadership can be found in the consumer and basic materials stocks, offsetting weakness in the technology and healthcare issues.

Technically, the S&P Index is making another attempt to move above its 50-day moving average, located at roughly 1,417. Notably, the index tried to trade above this area a few days ago, but hit resistance. Volumes have picked up lately, which suggests that traders may be ready to enter the market with a bit more conviction. We have seen bargain hunters move in to the market on weakness, and this also indicates that there is support for equities at the current level. Many traders may be anticipating a holiday rally, but such a move still remains to be seen.

The economic news released this morning, as noted, was encouraging. According to the Labor Department, non-farm payrolls rose by 146,000 in November, which was up from last month’s 138,000, and well ahead of expectations, which had been as low as 80,000. The headline unemployment rate declined to 7.7%, where many had been looking for 7.9%. While the market reacted favorably to this release, traders may have been anticipating the good news, as some of the employment-related reports put out earlier in the week came in with positive readings. Nonetheless, the sentiment did not stay positive for long. The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey for December came in with a preliminary reading of 74.5, which was quite a bit lower than many had been expecting. There may have been some concern that retail shopping during the holiday season may not be as strong as some have been hoping.

Corporate news was light this morning. Smith and Wesson (SWHC) stock is trading lower. The firearms manufacturer posted decent quarterly figures, but some are concerned about the outlook. In technology, Palo Alto Networks (PANW) shares were off a bit, despite a decent 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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Stocks to Watch from The Survey There isn’t much earnings news out today. Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS.TO) is one of the few companies on today’s docket, having reported October-period results this morning. Investors appeared pleased with the report, and the stock is up slightly ahead of the bell.

In other news, shares of Einstein Noah Restaurant Group (BAGL) are trading sharply higher in the premarket, after the operator of bagel cafes announced a recapitalization and a special one-time cash dividend of $4.00 a share.

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 - Stocks essentially marked time yesterday, ending the session with modest gains. And, for a change, it was the tech-laden NASDAQ that led the way. After that index had been noticeably weaker than the other averages in recent sessions, pushed lower by outsized losses in the shares of iconic computer maker Apple Inc. (AAPL), the NASDAQ led the way higher yesterday, adding 15 points, or a little over half a percentage point. The Dow, by comparison, ended the session up 40 points. But that translated into a gain of just 0.30%. The Standard and Poor's 500 Index was a similar winner, on a percentage basis, with its five-point advance. Meanwhile, there were just slightly more winners than losers on the Big Board yesterday, while losers edged out winners on the NASDAQ by the smallest of margins.  

Two things affected the market yesterday. First, there was the continued back-and-forth in Congress between the respective parties over just how best to solve the looming budget crisis, popularly known as the fiscal cliff. Then, there was the agonizing wait for this morning's Labor Department report on November non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate. That widely watched release came out just moments ago. More on that below.

As for the rest of the economy, it was a comparatively light day yesterday, but we did get some reassuring news from the Labor Department on weekly jobless claims. That metric showed that such filings had eased off somewhat in the latest seven-day stretch, coming in at a below-expectations rate of 370,000. That was well down from the prior week's 395,000 and estimates of 380,000. Data on jobless claims have been skewed materially over the past month due to the dislocations caused by Hurricane Sandy. This more upbeat report follows, by one day, a rather disconcerting report on private-sector payrolls, which had been issued by services giant Automatic Data Processing (ADP).

As to the so-called fiscal cliff, there is not much news coming out of Washington these days, except for the harsh rhetoric being heard from some quarters. We are fast approaching the January 2, 2013 deadline for reaching an accord before unpopular tax increases and major spending reductions are set to take effect. The consensus fears are that such a one-two punch would put the maturing U.S. business expansion at significant risk. Our assumption has been that some compromise will be fashioned. We still think that is the most likely scenario, but we are growing less certain that such a deal will be struck before the January 2nd deadline.

As to the more immediate issue, the government's report on payrolls and unemployment, the data showed that the nation added 146,000 jobs in November. That was well above the consensus forecast, which had fallen back to 80,000 jobs. Also encouraging, was the decline in the unemployment rate last month from 7.9% to 7.7%. Expectations had been for a static jobless rate. The equity futures, off modestly before the report's issuance, went strongly positive in the minutes following the release, presaging a notably higher opening when traders get down to business in about a half hour from now.   - Harvey S. Katz

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