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After the Close - The U.S. equity market started the second quarter the way it ended the prior 90-day stretch, which was with the major averages moving higher. Today’s buying pushed the Dow Jones Industrial Average to within a stone’s throw of its all-time highs, while the S&P 500 Index actually hit an intraday peak. Too, the NASDAQ, which struggled last week, has performed very well the last few days, keyed by the technology stocks. Overall, investors have shown a greater appetite for risk the last few sessions, likely prompted by easing concerns, at least for the moment, about Eastern Europe, comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen that the central bank plans to continue supporting the economy via monetary policies, and a solid report on manufacturing activity this morning. Advancing issues led decliners by more than two to one on the Big Board and by nearly three to one on the NASDAQ.

From a sector perspective, most of the top-10 groups finished in positive territory. Today’s big advancers were the technology and consumer discretionary stocks. Within the consumer cyclical area, shares of the casino and gaming, entertainment production, and department store operators were very much in favor, while communications equipment and IT services stocks powered the technology sector. Conversely, investors did not show much interest in the more defensive-minded sectors, including the utilities, today. Not surprisingly, the S&P 500 Volatility Index (or VIX)—also known as the "fear gauge"—was lower in the latest session and the yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves in the opposite direction to the price, rose to just over 2.75%. 

As noted, the day’s economic news was encouraging, with investors heartened by healthy manufacturing activity. Specifically, the Institute for Supply Management, a Tempe, Arizona-based trade group, reported that manufacturing activity rose to 53.7 in March from 53.2 in the prior month. A pickup in new orders, which contracted in February as the winter weather did not cooperate in many regions, also was encouraging. Then, this afternoon, we learned that U.S. automobile sales picked up steam in March, with Chrysler, Toyota (TM), Nissan (NSANY) and Ford (F) all posting gains last month. General Motors (GM) announced that a computer issue will delay the release of its monthly sales figures. The company, whose CEO Mary Barra testified today before a House subcommittee on safety issues for some its models, warned that March sales were hurt by a series of recalls last month. Shares of the aforementioned automakers, with the exception of GM, were higher following the release.   

Looking ahead to the rest of the week, ISM’s companion report on nonmanufacturing activity is due Thursday. That data will be bookended by a few important reports on the labor market, including Friday’s release of nonfarm payrolls for the month of March. The latter data, which will be closely monitored by the Federal Reserve, always has the possibility of be a game changer.   

Meantime, on a quiet day on the earnings front, we did get some interesting news from Corporate America. Shares of Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) surged after the company unveiled a new surgical system. Likewise, the stock of Windstream Holdings (WIN) moved higher after the technology solutions provider released a new channel pricing tool. Speaking of earnings, we are a week away from the official kickoff of the first-quarter reporting season when Alcoa (AA) releases results after the close of trading on April 8th. - 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 EDT - The U.S. stock market opened higher this morning, as traders looked to extend yesterday’s gains. At noon in New York, the major averages are pulling back from their highs a bit. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 50 points; the broader S&P 500 Index is ahead six points; and the NASDAQ, which is leading the charge, is tacking on 45 points. Market breadth is healthy, as advancing stocks are ahead of decliners by a decent margin on the NYSE. Notably, the statistics are far better on the NASDAQ. Most market sectors are in positive territory, with leadership in the technology group. Investors are buying the consumer cyclical issues, too.  Meanwhile, the utilities are off today, as traders might be feeling less risk averse and more willing to buy volatile, but possibly more rewarding, names.

Technically, today’s move put the S&P 500 Index above 1,880 intraday, and not too far from its all-time high, located at about 1,885. The Dow Industrial Average also looks to firming up. Meanwhile, the NASADQ is back to its 50-day moving average, a key indicator for technicians and traders. This is encouraging, assuming the advance holds. Trading volume has been decent lately, but not overly impressive. A pickup in trading would likely show greater conviction. The VIX is trading lower today to 13.3, which shows investors are likely feeling a bit more bullish about the situation.

Economic data picked up today. The ISM Manufacturing Index came in 53.7 for the month of March, which was slightly better than the February reading, but just below expectations. Elsewhere, construction spending matched the consensus view, rising 0.1% in February, after slipping in January.  Over the next few days, we get a few important releases. Notably, the monthly ADP Employment report is due out tomorrow. This will be followed by weekly jobless claims and nonmanufacturing activity on Thursday. Finally, we get a look the Government’s Employment report for March on Friday. This release will, no doubt, be widely watched, as traders look for guidance about the economy, and possibly the direction of the Fed’s policies.

Traders received no major corporate reports today. However, agricultural chemical giant Monsanto (MON) is slated to issue its results tomorrow. That stock is trading slightly lower today. - 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 is very little earnings news out today, as the start of first-quarter earnings season is still a week, or more, away. In the meantime, automakers will likely be in the spotlight today, as companies such as Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) are scheduled to release March sales figures this morning. Investors will also be keeping an eye on General Motor’s ongoing recall woes, which expanded yesterday. And today, Mary Barra, the company’s CEO, will begin offering testimony to a House subcommittee investigating defective ignition systems on some of the automaker’s vehicles, which have been linked to 13 crash deaths. 

Elsewhere, shares of Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) are up nicely ahead of the bell, after the medical devices company gained FDA approval for the latest version of its da Vinci Surgical System. – 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 - Wall Street closed out an in-and-out first quarter on a high note yesterday, scoring a triple-digit-point victory for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, as that 30-stock blue-chip composite added 134 points to end the session comparatively near its high for the day. The other averages chimed in with dramatic wins, as well, as the NASDAQ climbed by 43 points--it had been up by 57 points at the session's high--and the Standard and Poor's 500 Index added 15 points. It was a rare wire-to-wire win for a stock market that has been all over the map thus far this year.

All told, the Dow managed to trim its cumulative loss to a mere 0.4%, while yesterday's stealthy gain allowed the Standard and Poor's 500 Index to build its nominal cumulative advance to 1.3% and the NASDAQ, a slight 0.5% loser for the year-to-date going into the latest session, to emerge with a small uptick of 0.5%. The S&P 400 Index (a key mid-cap benchmark), ended the quarter, following yesterday's big 22-point win, up 2.7% on the quarter, while the small-cap Russell 2000, heretofore in the red by a scant 1.0%, ended the day with a sufficient increase to close out the three months with a cumulative 0.8% gain.   

Helping the market on this light news day (the lone item of note was a report showing a slower rate of manufacturing improvement in the greater Chicago area during March) were some supportive monetary policy comments by new Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, who intoned that the central bank's extraordinary aid to the economy would last for some time. Her basic contention is that "the recovery still feels like a recession to many Americans." She said, for example, that the decline in unemployment (the jobless rate is now 6.7%, with a new set of data due out on Friday) has not helped raise wages for workers as in past recoveries." She went on the opine that "the low rate of wage growth is, to me, another sign that the Fed's job is not yet done." Also, some now believe that a peaceful end to the standoff between East and West over Ukraine and Crimea could yet be fashioned, although such hopes are more fancy than fact, at this time. 

Meanwhile, looking ahead, it will now be a news filled week. To be sure, earnings data will be limited as we still are a week or two from the start of peak reporting season. But on the economic news front, we will be getting key data on manufacturing activity nationally this morning, as the Institute for Supply Management will be issuing such data at 10:00 (EDT) this morning. A small further uptick is the expectation. Data on construction spending and March vehicle sales also are due out in the next few hours. Then, tomorrow, we are scheduled to get data on factory orders for February. That will be followed the next day with reports on initial and continuing jobless claims for the latest week and also monthly figures for non-manufacturing activity. That report also will be issued by the Institute for Supply Management. The week then concludes with March non-farm payroll data and the jobless rate for the month. A jobs increase of 205,000 and a drop from 6.7% to 6.6% in the unemployment rate are the expectations for the latest month.   

Meanwhile, a new day is about to begin, and thus far, the signs are positive, with the markets in Asia showing aggregate strength overnight, especially in  Japan, the markets were also ahead modestly in Europe earlier this morning. And on our shores, the Standard and Poor's 500 Index futures are up by almost five points, while the NASDAQ futures are ahead by nearly nine points. So for the bulls, there seems hope that we may not see a Monday-Tuesday reversal, as we begin the second quarter, following the mixed opening three months summarized above. - Harvey S. Katz

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