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After The Close - It was a tough day at the office on Wall Street today, as stocks fell sharply on concerns over China’s economic slowdown and the festering troubles in Ukraine. At the closing bell, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 231 points and the NASDAQ was off 63 points. Market breadth was decidedly bearish, with more than two stocks falling for every one rising on the New York Stock Exchange.

Trading started out on a promising note, with better-than-expected readings on weekly initial unemployment claims and February retail sales. But by mid-morning, sentiment had broken down.

A sinking feeling set in when the data emanating out of China indicated more evidence of a slowdown in growth from the blistering pace of a few years earlier. Specifically, China’s industrial output rose 8.6% in January and February, versus the prior year, but that was the slowest pace in nearly five years. Moreover, that nation’s retail sales rose 11.8% in the first two months of 2014, but that was also the lowest rate in several years. Even so, China’s Premier Li Keqiang voiced confidence that the nation could meet its target for 7.5% GDP growth this year.

Also looming in investors’ minds was the ongoing war of words between the two sides arguing the future of Ukrainian, Crimean, and Russian borders. A referendum scheduled for Sunday in Crimea to determine if it should leave Ukraine and join Russia is seen as illegitimate and coercive by the pro-Ukrainian side. But Russia clearly aims to protect its interests in the region. In short, the potential is rising for trade sanctions that would be the type of political fence Wall Street does not like to see.

There were few places to hide today. Gold, government bonds, and utilities were among the handful of traditionally defensive investments that performed well. A modest rise in gold prices helped the stocks of miners, such as Barrick Gold (ABX). Meanwhile, the perceived safe haven of government bonds found a following, as the yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell from 2.73% to 2.66%, with prices rising. Falling interest rates also supported shares of utilities, such as Westar Energy (WR).

Also bucking the broader trend was the stock of retailer Williams-Sonoma (WSM), which jumped after the kitchen gadget chain and parent of Pottery Barn reported its best holiday season in five years.

Overall, though, the session was a lopsided defeat for the bulls, who will try to regroup on Friday. -  Robert Mitkowski

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

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Market Update - After teasing the bulls for the past three days with just half-hearted declines, or less, the bears are making a more serious attempt today to orchestrate a notable down move in the equity market.

On point, after weaving in and out of the red this morning, and up until close to the noon hour along the East Coast, the bears have really taken over, and as we enter the final 90 minutes of the trading the session, the stock market is selling off sharply.

In all, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down 210 points; the NASDAQ is off 60 points; and the Standard and Poor's 500 Index is in the minus column to the tune of 19 points. The small- and mid-cap indexes are selling off significantly, as well.

Behind this sharp reversal appear to be fears over the escalation of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia as well as worries of a slowdown in China, the world's second largest economy. Also hurting sentiment is the fact that valuations are hardly cheap, and as they increase so does the sense that tolerance for bad news is getting less and less.

In fact, in recent days, there has been some sentiment on Wall Street that a selloff is overdue. We also are getting near the spring, and some suggest that this part of the calendar, especially as we get closer to April and May, can be a signal to sell. Whatever the reason, or reasons, there is no argument that stocks are now getting hit rather hard on the day. - Harvey S. Katz

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 opened higher this morning, but the euphoria was short lived. At just past noon in New York, the major averages are off sharply and at their session lows. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is off 110 points; the broader S&P 500 Index is down 11 points; and the technology-heavy NASDAQ is lower by 32 points. Market breadth currently indicates a negative tone to today’s session, as declining stocks are outnumbering decliners on the NYSE. Further, most of the market sectors are trading lower, with notable losses in the energy stocks. The technology issues, too, are quite weak, with losses in the software and Internet names. In contrast, the high-yielding utilities issues are seeing some buyers. The basic materials stocks are also bucking the downtrend, but barely.

Technically, stocks have come under a bit of pressure over the past few days. Yesterday, the market opened softly, but the fact that the bulls were able to step in and take back some control, was encouraging. Nonetheless, trading volumes have been light, which suggests that many traders are staying put, or sitting on the sidelines, which is not uncharacteristic of markets in a consolidation period. From here, we will be watching for some more decisive moves in the market. For the bulls, the 1,880 area on the S&P 500 is likely a key target, and moving past this level would be a constructive development. If this fails to materialize and the bears take control, the index could well spend more time in the 1,850 range, which was a point of resistance back earlier in the year. Traders may be slightly more apprehensive today, as the VIX is rising to 15.17.

Investors received generally favorable economic news this morning and that may be behind some of the earlier strength. Jobless claims for the week ended March 8th, came in at 315,000, which was a bit lower than had been anticipated. Retail sales in February increased 0.3%, which also was a slight surprise to the upside.  Some of this news may be offset by fears about a slower economy in China and hostilities in Ukraine.

We received a few earnings reports this morning. Williams-Sonoma (WSM) stock is trading higher, as the household retailer put out better-than-expected figures, but issued a lackluster outlook. Krispy Kreme (KKD) stock is up, as that company’s results more, or less, matched forecasts. - 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 Investors continue to pour over earnings reports, with this latest batch delivering mixed results. The early standout appears to be shares of Krispy Kreme (KKD), which are up sharply ahead of the bell, after the doughnut shop operator released solid January-period financials, issued an upbeat outlook, and increased its stock-repurchase authorization. Shares of home goods seller Williams-Sonoma (WSM) are also moving nicely higher in the premarket, thanks to better-than-anticipated January-quarter financials. Management also raised the quarterly cash dividend to $0.33 a share, from $0.31. Conversely, investors took issue with quarterly reports from ski resort operator Vail Resorts (MTN) and discount retailer Dollar General (DG). Both equities are indicating modestly lower openings this morning, in response.

In other news, online retailer Amazon.com (AMZN) will increase the price of its Prime service, which offers unlimited two-day shipping and access to online media content, to $99 a year, up from $79. The stock is up slightly ahead of the bell, as a result. – 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 - Buffeted by concerns about slowing growth in China and lingering worries about Ukraine, and selective worries about earnings data among the retail companies stateside, the stock market opened sharply lower yesterday. The bulls also weren't helped by steep losses overseas, first in Asia and then in Europe.

However, faced with the threat of three losses in a row this week, the equity market stabilized in mid-morning and started to stage a nice comeback, working off a near 90-point setback in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and a 35-point slide in the NASDAQ, as the morning unfolded. In fact, after the initial hour of trading, it looked as though we would see some of green arrows before lunch time. And, in fact, we did, as the NASDAQ turned positive shortly after 11:00 (EDT), while the other indexes notably pared their losses. Then, by 11:30, the other indexes had joined the parade, and edged into the black, while the NASDAQ had strengthened even further.      

The progressively better tone then carried over to the noon hour, with the averages mostly booking modest gains for a brief span, before they again started to retreat, especially the Dow, albeit with less ferocity than had been the case initially. As the afternoon droned on, a virtual standoff evolved, with the Dow off by anywhere from 20 to 30 points, the Standard and Poor's 500 Index going back and forth around the neutral line, and the NASDAQ holding modest gains, for the most part.

This uneven showing, meantime, lasted until the start of the final hour of trading, at which point, the market started to ease back again, briefly moving back below that early afternoon range. But that retracement never really obtained any traction, and near the close, the averages perked up again, so that by the end of this seesaw session, they were largely mixed, with the Dow Jones Industrials off just narrowly, easing by a mere 11 points, while the Standard and Poor's 500 Index essentially was flat, and the NASDAQ retained a 16-point advance. Bonds rose, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note easing to 2.73% and the yield on the 30-year bond edging down to 3.67%.    

Meanwhile, in addition to the aforementioned concerns about China and the continued Russia-Ukraine soap opera, there are worries about the sudden strength of the euro and further questions about stimulus actions in Japan. Also, a reading on euro-zone industrial production issued yesterday showed a decline of 0.2%. A gain had been expected. That likewise contributed to the poor market sentiment early yesterday.  

On the other hand, the news for gold was better, with that precious metal again pushing higher, gaining some $20 an ounce at one point. The gold stocks, in response, gained nicely during the session, continuing a positive trend for the metal and the underlying stocks over the past month, or so. That better showing also helped some basic materials stocks to rally a bit, thereby reversing some earlier weakness in this cyclical sector. At the same time, there was some selective strength in the tech group, while some of the more defensive stocks, notably the food processors, likewise strengthened. Conversely, the oil stocks faltered, as crude prices dropped sharply in New York. On the whole, however, it was a listless day, as the market continues to drift sideways-to-lower so far this week, amid a paucity of economic and earnings news.

Now, a new day dawns, and following the absence of hard economic news to start the week, we have had a pair of key issuances, initial jobless claims for the latest week and retail sales for February. On point, the Labor Department reported that first-time filers for unemployment benefits fell from 324,000 to 315,000 over the latest seven-day period; a small rise had been the expectation. Also, the Commerce Department estimated that retail sales had gained 0.3% last month, a slightly bigger increase than forecast.

As to the equity markets, they were generally higher in Asia overnight, although Japan's Nikkei did edge a bit lower, even though industrial production  and retail sales both slowed their rates of improvement in the latest month. Meantime, in Europe most of the bourses are tracking somewhat higher so far this morning, led by Germany's DAX. And on our shores, the Dow, S&P, and NASDAQ futures are all moving nicely higher in the pre-market, presaging a better opening for Wall Street when trading commences in less than an 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.