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After The Close - The final day of the trading week had much the same look as the prior four sessions; that was with the major U.S. equity indexes not straying all that far from the neutral line for most of the session.  And even though selling picked up at the start of the second half of the trading, the bears were not able to extend the losses, even losing some steam in the final hour. By the closing bell, the NASDAQ, and the S&P 500 Index were modestly lower, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average was able to eke out a small gain. Overall, there was a negative tone to trading, as declining issues led advancers on both the Big Board and the NASDAQ. Today’s uninspiring performance on Wall Street resulted in a slightly lower week for equities.

Our sense was that the session’s mild selling was driven by a disquieting report on the U.S. economy. Specifically, the Department of Commerce noted that industrial production had eased by 0.1% last month, falling from December's upwardly revised gain of 0.4%. We also learned that capacity utilization had edged down from an upwardly revised 79.3% rate during December at the nation's factories to a rate of 79.1% last month. The data were disconcerting snapshots of the U.S. manufacturing industry, which is a key cog in the nation’s economic output. The other major data issued this week (retail sales on Wednesday) was also far from uplifting, as it showed only a nominal increase in that metric. Not surprisingly, given this uninspiring data, those sectors most closely tied to health of the economy (i.e., basic materials, energy, and financial) were the biggest laggards.

However, not all the news was disappointing this week. In addition to yesterday’s better reading on initial weekly unemployment claims, we learned today that  U.S. consumer sentiment rose in February to a three-month high, which, importantly, may help to preserve recent gains in household spending. Specifically, the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of consumer sentiment climbed to 76.3 this month from 73.8 in January. The report gave a nice boost to consumer cyclical stocks in the latest session, with notable gains registered in the shares of V.F. Corporation (VFC).

Speaking of the designer of apparel and footwear products, it led a handful of companies that reported good quarterly results today. In addition to V.F., food processing companies J.M. Smucker (SJM) and Campbell Soup (CPB) posted better-than-expected earnings. Meantime, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT - Free Wal-Mart Stock Report), which is scheduled to report quarterly results next Thursday, saw its stock fall after a major financial daily reported that one of the company’s mid-level executives sent an email saying the world's largest retailer had the worst sales start to any month in seven years in February. The weakness in Wal-Mart stock held the Dow 30 in check today. Investors should also note that shares of retailer The Gap (GPS) rose on unusually high volume today.

Looking ahead, the U.S. equity and bond markets will be closed on Monday in observance of Presidents Day. Later on in the week, we will get data on producer and consumer prices, housing starts, existing home sales, and the leading indicators. On the earnings front, in addition to the aforementioned Wal-Mart Stores, we will get the latest quarterly results from struggling computer maker Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Free Hewlett-Packard Stock Report).   - 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 EST - The U.S. stock market is putting in a somewhat lackluster session today, as traders look to a three-day holiday weekend. At just past noon in New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is off 14 points. In the large-cap average, shares of Pfizer (PFE - Free Pfizer Stock Report) are leading, while Wal-Mart (WMT - Free Wal-Mart Stock Report) shares are lagging. Elsewhere, the broader S&P 500 Index is down slightly; and the technology-heavy NASDAQ is also now in negative territory. Market breadth suggests a mixed tone, as declining stocks are mildly ahead of advancers on the NYSE.  There is some sector strength in the consumer cyclical and transportation issues. However, there is significant weakness in the energy stocks. Notably, the price of crude oil is off almost 2%, to just over $95.00 a barrel today, and that is likely hurting the related equities. Also, in commodities, gold is down sharply to nearly $1,600 an ounce, and that may be hurting the metals and mining stocks.

Technically, the S&P 500 Index is still moving sideways, as it has been for several sessions. Volumes have been a bit light lately, possibly suggesting that traders are taking a wait-and-see attitude for now. 
Meanwhile investors are digesting a mixed batch of economic reports released this morning. There was some good news here, as the economy in the New York region is doing well, with the Empire Manufacturing Index coming in with a reading of 10.0, which was well ahead of expectations. Further, the average shopper may be feeling better, as the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Survey rose to 76.3 in February, which was better than anticipated. Not all the reports were constructive, though. For example, industrial production slipped 0.1% in January, where many economists had been looking for a slight gain. Elsewhere, traders may be watching the developments of the G-20 meeting taking place in Russia.

We are still receiving some fourth-quarter earnings announcements. Today, we heard from Campbell Soup (CPB). That issue is moving higher, after the company put out a solid report. Also in the food area, J.M. Smucker (SJM) shares are up a bit, after the jelly and jams manufacturer issued good quarterly figures. Meanwhile, Herbalife (HLF) is back in the news. That stock is rising sharply, after investor Carl Icahn revealed that he had a position in the company.  - 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, and today investors are studying several releases from food packaging and processing companies. Indeed, shares of Campbell Soup (CPB) and The J.M. Smucker Company (SJM) are indicating a lower opening on earnings news, while the stock of Kraft Foods (KRFT) is up slightly ahead of the bell. Similarly, shares of Burger King Worldwide (BKW) are trading nicely higher in the premarket, after the restaurant operator released fourth-quarter financials. Elsewhere, Herbalife (HLF) stock is soaring ahead of the opening bell, on news that famed investor Carl Icahn has amassed a 13% stake in the seller of weight management, nutritional supplement, and personal care products. – Matthew E. Spencer

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 - Traders tried yet one more time to push the Dow Jones Industrial Average to a sustained close above 14,000. And once more they failed. To be sure, this was not a big time failure, as that 30-stock index shed just nine points on the day. But following a series of recent misses, mostly of modest proportions, the Dow is now a few points further from that enviably bullish level, at 13,973.

Helping to cool the heels of the bears a bit yesterday, meantime, was a solid report on weekly jobless claims, as both new and continued filings fell back a bit more aggressively during the most recent seven-day stretch than had been forecast by economists. Countering this good news was some additional dour metrics out of the euro zone, where a report issued yesterday confirmed that Germany's economy, the largest and strongest on the Continent, had lost some of its former buoyancy, as it contracted in the fourth quarter of 2012, thereby matching our economy's recent stumble.

Such weakness aside, the aggregate market tone on our shores was no worse than mixed in the latest session, as in addition to the Dow's nominal setback, the Standard and Poor's 500 Index gained a point, while the technology laden NASDAQ added a pair of points. The small- and-mid-cap indexes also were in the black, albeit just slightly, following a pattern that seems to have taken hold in recent days. In truth, the other averages are just playing a little catchup, as the Dow remains at or near the top in performance among the major indexes thus far this year, with a 6.6% gain. Before the recent stumble by that blue chip index, the Dow had just about been the best performer among the averages for the year to date.

Now, a new day dawns, and we will be getting a look at industrial production and factory usage for January in the coming few minutes. Then, in less than a hour from now, the University of Michigan will release its semi-monthly report on consumer sentiment. As to the likely results, industrial output is forecast to have nudged up slightly last month, the same as capacity utilization. Sentiment, too, is expected to have improved a bit from the January reading.

We also will be getting a look at earnings, led by Campbell Soup (CPB) and J.M. Smucker (SJM). In the case of Campbell's, the giant food processor posted somewhat better-than-expected earnings and a gain in sales. That issue is indicating a bit higher in the pre-market. As to Smucker, the maker of jams and jellies, which has seen its shares perform admirably in recent years, has posted a gain in quarterly net as well, on stronger sales and better margins. However, that stock is suggesting a lower opening when trading commences in about a half hour from now.

Overall, we look as though we will again mark time at the start of the new trading day, following a slightly lower session so far in Europe, and some unimpressive recent days on Wall Street. Overall, this should be a quiet day ahead of a long holiday weekend, as investors await the resumption of trading next Tuesday. - Harvey S. Katz

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