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After The Close - At first blush, it looked like the U.S. equity market regrouped today after a down showing yesterday to start the new quarter, but in actuality it was a very mixed day on Wall Street. The major U.S. equity indexes, including the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the NASDAQ, and the broader S&P 500 Index, all finished nicely higher, but were modestly off of their earlier highs by the close. Meantime, the mid- and small-cap indexes did not fare well today, with both the S&P Mid-Cap 400 Index and the Russell 2000 finishing notably in the red. Overall, the tone of trading took a turn for the worse in the second half of the session, with the spread between advancing and declining issues, which had been very much in favor of the former for most of the day, reversing course by the closing bell.

From a top-10 sector perspective, it was a mixed showing. There was definitely more interest shown today for the defensive-oriented sectors, with some leadership coming from the healthcare, telecommunications, and consumer staples stocks. Conversely, those sectors most closely tied to the performance of the global economy fared poorly, selling off in the final few hours. The day’s biggest laggards were the basic materials, energy, and industrial sectors. Within the basic materials space, continued weakness was shown by the precious metals and mining, steel, and agricultural chemicals issues. Technology stocks were also relatively weaker, weighed down by a poor performance from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Free Hewlett-Packard Stock Report), which fell sharply after a major investment bank downgraded the company’s stock. H-P stock had soared in the first quarter, gaining 67%.

The day’s economic news was encouraging, but, as noted, did not give a boost to the economically sensitive sectors. Perhaps, because the reports tend to not be headline grabbers, the investment community did not give them much attention. Still, factory orders increased $14.5 billion (or 3.0%), to $492.0 billion. It marked the highest level since the series was first published on a NAICS basis in 1992 and followed a 1.0% January decrease. Excluding transportation, new orders increased 0.3%. The report also helped ease some of the concerns raised yesterday after the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index for March came in below expectations. Meanwhile, the major automakers recorded another strong month of car and truck sales in March, kicking off the important spring selling season on a good note. Shares of the U.S. automakers Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) moved slightly higher, while the stocks of two foreign automakers Honda Motor (HMC) and Nissan Motor (NSANY) did not get a bump from the good vehicle sales data.

Elsewhere, it was a good day for those long European equities. The bourses on the Continent were notably higher, led by respective gains of 1.9% and 2.0% for Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC-40. Pushing equities higher were regional manufacturing PMI readings that were reported mostly ahead of expectations—though it should be noted that all of the readings were reported below 50, which delineates the difference between expansion and contraction. The euro-zone manufacturing PMI was reported at 46.8; French’s manufacturing PMI was 44.0 (versus 43.9); Germany's manufacturing PMI came in at 49.0 (versus 48.9). Meantime, the euro zone’s unemployment rate was at an all-time high of 12.0% last month. European investors also were encouraged by reports that Cyprus will receive an extension until 2018 to meet its fiscal targets. In addition, Cyprus will pay 2.5% interest on its bailout loans, with the repayment set to commence in 10 years.

Looking ahead, tomorrow will bring an important report on the U.S. economy when the Institute for Supply Management issues data on the nonmanufacturing (services) sector. This report will be closely watched, as the consumer accounts for roughly two-thirds of the nation’s economic output, and last week’s dour report on consumer confidence is still on the minds of investors. This report comes two days ahead of Friday’s much-anticipated report on employment and unemployment.   - 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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12:00 PM EDT - The stock market is showing some strength today after a weak session yesterday. In fact, the major averages are near their highs for the day, which is a good indication. Hopefully for the bulls, the buying will continue into the afternoon. Meanwhile, as we pass the noon hour in New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 96 points (0.7%); the S&P 500 Index is ahead by 10 points (0.6%); and the tech-heavy NASDAQ is showing some leadership and is tacking on 23 points (0.7%). Market breadth is favorable, with rising stocks outnumbering decliners by roughly 2 to 1 on the NYSE. Most of the market sectors are contributing to the rally, with notable gains in the consumer non-cyclical names. There is also strength in the financials and the healthcare issues. The basic materials sector is lower today, though, as this has been a pattern lately. The weakness is apparent in the metals stocks and in the coal issues.

Technically, the S&P 500 is looking to move into higher ground, which can prove challenging. Trading volumes have been light for the past week, or so, and this suggests that traders may still be a bit tentative. However, the VIX, Wall Street’s fear gauge, is lower by about 6% today, to just under 13. Further, investors may be feeling less risk averse, as gold and silver are trading lower.

The economic reports released this morning were constructive, and probably spurred the rally. Specifically, factory orders rose 3.0% for the month of February. This showing matched consensus forecasts, and also stands in contrast to the contraction in orders in March. Tomorrow, we get a look at the ADP Employment Change report for March, as well as the ISM non-manufacturing figures for last month. Ultimately, the big report will come on Friday, as the government releases its employment report for the month of March. This release easily has the capability of moving the stock market, one way or the other.

In the corporate arena, Humana (HUM) stock is trading higher, on some favorable news concerning rate increases. But, McCormick (MKC) stock is lower, after the company put out a report that just met expectations. Stocks moving higher today include: BGC Partners (BGCP), Hertz Global (HTZ), and Ashland (ASH). Issues headed lower include: Nasdaq OMX Group (NDAQ), Delta Airlines (DAL), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Free Hewlett-Packard Stock Report).   - Adam Rosner

At the time of this article's writing, the author had a position in BGC Partners (BGCP).

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Stocks to Watch from The Survey There is some M&A news out today, as exchange operator NASDAQ OMX Group (NDAQ) has agreed to pay $1.23 billion to acquire eSpeed, an electronic marketplace for trading U.S. Treasuries, from industry peer BGC Partners (BGCP). BGCP stock is soaring in the premarket, while NDAQ stock is down moderately. Elsewhere, shares of healthy insurers appear ready to rally today, after new, better-than-expected government rates for operating Medicare Advantage plans were announced late yesterday. Humana (HUM) stock is up sharply in pre-market trading as a result, and shares of UnitedHealth Group (UNHFree UnitedHealth Group Stock Report), Aetna (AET), and Cigna (CI) are also indicating higher openings this morning. Finally, shares of Urban Outfitters (URBN) are trading nicely higher ahead of the bell, after the apparel and accessories retailer raised its sales guidance. – 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 - A chill early April wind has descended over much of the country to start the new month, while on Wall Street, a cold wind blew in yesterday following the best opening quarter for the stock market in more than a decade.

Specifically, the temperatures and the markets fell yesterday, with the aggregate equity market performing more poorly than the leading averages. Those key indexes generally fell only modestly in the latest session, save for the NASDAQ, which did far worse on further weakness in the shares of erstwhile tech darling Apple Inc. (AAPL).  

All told, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, fresh off of a series of all-time closing highs, shed a mere six points, while the Standard and Poor's 500 Index, which rallied to a fresh peak on the final trading day of the opening quarter, dropped seven points. However, the NASDAQ fell 28 points, or just under one percentage point, while the small-cap Russell 2000 lost 13 points, or 1.34%, making that composite the day's worst performer, save for the Dow Transports, which dropped an outsized 93 points, or 1.49%.

The catalyst for the market's drop, in addition to the expected repositioning by many funds in the wake of the first quarter's heroics, was a dour report on U.S. manufacturing activity during the month of March. Here, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), the Tempe, Arizona-based trade group, reported that industrial activity growth had slowed notably last month, registering a barely expansionary reading of 51.3. (A survey result above 50.0 signals that this sector is gaining traction.) In February, that metric had climbed to 54.2; expectations had been for a result of 54.0.       

That weaker showing firmed up the resolve of the few remaining bears, and suggested to some suddenly frightened bulls that the promise of the second-quarter economy may not materialize, after all. However, we would hesitate to make such a snap judgment on such a limited sampling, especially as another metric showed a nice gain in construction spending in February. 

Going forward, we again will have data issued today, this time in the form of factory orders, which, likewise, are expected to have increased in February, the latest month for which such figures are available. Then, tomorrow, we will get data on non-manufacturing activity from the ISM and figures from Automatic Data Processing (ADP) on private-sector job creation in March. In the meantime, all of this is just a prelude to the biggest economic news story of the month when, on Friday, the U.S. Labor Department will issue its report on non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate for March.  

As to other news, the European bourses are headed higher this morning, as those markets re-open following the Easter Monday observance yesterday. The bourses on the Continent are gaining on hopes that the expected better news on the U.S. economy will offset some further gloom in the euro zone. Europe's economies are generally in recession and recent data on factory orders have not lifted the spirits over there by any means.

Meanwhile, the gains in Europe and a generally better showing in Asia overnight have whetted the appetite of the bull on our shores, as the S&P 500 Index futures have sped to a gain of some six points and the NASDAQ futures have jumped ahead by better than 19 points, with less than an hour to go before the start of the new trading day on Wall Street.

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