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Futures hold marginal gain after weak retail sales

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Stock futures are well off their highs as the S&P 500 futures contract (sp03h) 816.90 +0.01% holds a small gain after trading has high as 822.40 just before this morning's release of retail sales, which fell in -0.9% in January.

The Commerce Department said retail sales fell 0.9% to $306.6 billion, erasing about half of December's 2% gain. Sales were up 3.9% over January 2001.

Auto sales fell 7.5% in January, the biggest decline since November 2001. December sales had jumped 7.9% as automakers stepped up their promotional activity.

Excluding autos, retail sales rose 1.3%, the strongest gain in 28 months. Excluding autos and the 2.7% rise in gasoline sales, which was fueled by higher prices, sales rose 1.1%.

In January, sales at general merchandise stores advanced 0.6%, although department store sales dropped 0.1%.

Most other retail outlets reported higher sales in January. Building and garden store sales rose 2.9%. Food and beverage store sales jumped 2.6%. Health and drug store sales climbed 1.1%.

Clothing store sales rose 0.3%, as did leisure goods such as books, music and sporting goods.

However, consumer durables such as furniture, large home appliances and electronics were weak. Furniture sales dropped 1.3% while electronics store sales fell 1.4%.

Economists were looking for total sales to fall 0.5% and for ex- auto sales to rise 0.5%, so today's report was weaker than expected.

December's sales were revised significantly higher, from 1.2% to 2%. Excluding autos, December sales rose 0.2%, a bit stronger than the flat reading originally estimated. November's gain was revised lower to 0.6% from 0.9%.

Taking the revisions into account, core retail sales were better than expected in January and over the holiday sales season. Sales in the November through January period were up 3.6% year- over-year, while ex-auto sales were up 4.8%, contrary to dire warnings that the holiday season was the worst in decades.

In separate reports, the Labor Department said import prices rose 1.5% in January, led by a 12.4% jump in petroleum prices. Import prices are up 5.5% in the past twelve months, the biggest gain in three years.

Economic data on the job front had the Labor Department reporting an 18,000 decline in first time claims for unemployment in the latest week ending February 15th to 377,000, which was better than economists forecast for 385,000. The four-week average of first-time claims for state unemployment benefits rose by 3,500 to 389,000 while continuing claims fell to their lowest level since September 2001.

S&P futures (sp03h) are currently up 0.10 points at 816.90. NASDAQ futures (nd03h) are higher by 3.0 points at 961.50, while Dow futures (dj03h) are gaining 5 points at 7,740.

Fair value for the S&P 500 today is $-0.07. That price will not change during the session. HL Camp & Company has their computers set for program buying at $0.54 and set for selling at $-1.90.

Jeff Bailey

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