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After The Close - Stocks took a step back today after this morning’s weaker-than-expected data on the nation’s fourth-quarter productivity breathed fresh life into the bearish camp. Specifically, the 2.0% drop in productivity was worse than the 1.6% decline economists had been looking for. The magnitude of the setback provided investors with a reason to take profits in a market that has risen rapidly this year.

Going into today’s session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had gained 6.7%; the Dow Transports, 10.7%; the Dow Utilities, 4.5%; and the NASDAQ, 4.9%. That is an exceptional performance for what has not been even six full weeks of trading in 2013.
The bulls didn’t go down without a fight today, though, bringing the Dow Jones Industrial Average back from more than a 130-point loss around midday, before the rally ran out of steam.

At the close, the Dow Industrials had given up 42 points and the NASDAQ was off three points. Market breadth was weak, with three stocks falling for every two advancing on the New York Stock Exchange. But there were still many more stocks hitting fresh 52-week highs than lows, attesting to the market’s recent strength.

Also contributing to the less uplifting undertone to trading was the realization that gasoline prices are on the rise. According to AAA, the national average price for a gallon of regular gas is now $3.55, up from $3.30 a month earlier. Refinery problems and closures have created some tightness in the delivery system. Consumers are already dealing with less take-home pay now that the payroll tax holiday has expired. Rising gasoline prices are another drag.

Stocks didn’t get any help from Europe or Asia today, where the equity markets were broadly lower. In Europe, cautious comments by ECB President Mario Draghi undermined the euro’s recent strength. Meanwhile, traders in Japan took profits after a rapid ascent in the Nikkei Average these past few months.
At the sector level, shares of energy companies, such as Exxon Mobil (XOM - Free Exxon Stock Report) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA) fared poorly following a pullback in oil prices. In other corporate news, Prudential Financial (PRU) slipped on a disappointing earnings report.

Friday brings fresh economic data in the form of the latest report on the International Trade Deficit, which is expected to have narrowed somewhat in December, and a reading on wholesale inventories, where the consensus view is for a moderate gain. Good news on these fronts could help the bulls regroup, although it would not be too surprising to see some further consolidation in the market in the weeks ahead.   - Robert Mitkowski
         
At the time of this writing, the author did not have positions in any of the stocks mentioned. 

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12:40 PM EST - The U.S. stock market opened lower this morning, fell further, and is now making a slight attempt to bounce off its session lows. As we have seen quite frequently lately, it is still quite possible for bargain hunters to step in during the afternoon. Notably, while it is important to watch the market at the opening of the session, the last few hours of the day can often be more telling. Technically, the S&P 500 Index is just holding at the 1,500 mark, and although there has been some volatility lately, it seems to be consolidating in this area. There may be some apprehension on the part of traders, as the market has had a strong run, with little profit taking in the interim. The VIX is higher today, and once again, investors are buying the U.S. 10-year notes. Also, valuations, as measured by price- to-earnings multiples, may be getting a bit high.

As we pass the noon hour in New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is off 114 points (-0.8%); the S&P 500 Index is down 11 points (-0.7%); and the tech-heavy NASDAQ is slipping 21 points (-0.7%). Market breadth shows the widespread selling, as decliners are ahead of advancers by a wide margin on the NYSE. All of the market sectors are in negative territory, with sharp especially declines in the energy, healthcare, and capital goods names. The utilities are only off slightly, as traders turn defensive.

Some stocks stand out noticeably today. Akamai Technology (AKAM) shares are trading much lower, after that company put out a mixed report. Also in technology, TriQuint Semiconductor (TQNT) is falling sharply on a disappointing outlook. But, Devry (DV) stock is up, after the educational company posted solid results. We also heard from insurance giant Allstate (ALL). That stock is higher, following a strong report.

Meanwhile, traders may be looking at this morning’s economic reports. Specifically, the initial unemployment claims for the week ended Feb. 2nd, came in at came in 366,000, which was essentially in line with expectations, and an improvement from the upwardly revised 371,000 claims reported in the prior week. In another report, productivity slipped 2% in the fourth quarter, according to the preliminary reading. This showing was worse than analysts had anticipated. Also, unit labor costs were seen rising a bit in the fourth quarter, which may hint at some inflation, and traders certainly don’t like to see that. Tomorrow, we get the December trade balance figures and a report on wholesale inventories. - 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 reports are still flowing in, with retailers in the spotlight today, as a number have reported January same-store sales this morning. Elsewhere, on the earnings front, shares of Akamai Technologies (AKAM) are plunging in the premarket, after the provider of services for the delivery of content and business processes over the Internet reported fourth-quarter results and issued a lackluster outlook. The same is true for shares of Green Mountain Coffee (GMCR), a roaster, packager, and distributer of coffee, and semiconductor company TriQuinit Semiconductor (TQNT).

Turnings to retailers, O’Reilly Automotive (ORLY) stock is trading nicely higher ahead of the bell, after the autoparts supplier reported solid fourth-quarter results. Elsewhere, shares of department store operator Macy’s (M), general merchandise retailer Target (TGT), and clothing company Gap Inc. (GPS) are all trading modestly higher on favorable January comps. – 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 - After swooning and surging on consecutive days to start this week, the constantly warring bulls and bears took a much-needed rest yesterday, as the market largely marched in place. To wit, after weaving in and out of the black throughout the session, the leading averages wound up the day pretty much where they had started it six and a half hours earlier. That is, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining seven points and the NASDAQ giving back three points. However, the Dow's nominal gain did leave that 30-stock composite just 14 points shy of 14,000. That psychologically significant barrier had been surpassed last Friday, only to take a step back on Monday. Now, after a stellar gain on Tuesday and the slight increase yesterday, that index is back on the cusp of that lofty plateau once again.

The day's lackluster showing, meanwhile, was largely generated in a news vacuum on our shores, as there were no economic releases of note. However, stocks in Europe fell on lingering concerns about the Continent's faltering financial fundamentals and questionable economic prospects.

In this business news absence, the attention was logically focused on the few remaining corporate profit issuances of note. And here, the headline report was provided by entertainment giant Walt Disney (DISFree Disney Stock Report), which posted fiscal first (December) quarter revenues and earnings that topped forecasts. That stock, which roared to a 52-week high early in the session, saw some of that initial exuberance set aside over the course of the day. So, by the close, the issue was up just incrementally. Another winner in the latest session was Time Warner (TWX), which saw its stock leap more than $2 a share on an increase in the dividend and the announcement of a large share buyback.

Elsewhere, the debt-challenged airline sector is in the news this morning, with the report that American Airlines parent AMR and US Airways Group (LLC) are ironing out any remaining issues needed to be resolved before those carriers strike a merger agreement. Such a combination, if consummated, would produce the world's largest airline. US Airways stock is indicated slightly higher in the pre-market.

Elsewhere, the news vacuum has lifted somewhat this morning, with the report that first-time jobless claims had eased in the latest week, a development that is normally appreciated by the equity market. That piece of welcome news has helped to underpin the futures, so that the stock market, which had been expected to open the session mixed, is now pointing to the upside, albeit modestly. Still, the 14,000 mark on the Dow seems to be again in view, and this time, the presumptive early advance just might exhibit some staying power. – Harvey S. Katz

At the time of this article's writing, the author had positions in DIS.