Wednesday was unexciting for the major indexes, although some stocks did fly. We found November job losses slowing but less than expected, gold continuing to defy — what's that word that starts with a G? — and hiring still stubbornly low, all leading to mostly lower volume. Any of these could have riled the indexes under other circumstances, but the day was fairly quiet, with advancers outdoing decliners.


There was a mild early rise on news of the eighth straight decline in private-sector job losses. Then the market slipped after the announcement of a buildup in petroleum supplies coupled with unimpressive demand, and a minor rise in the dollar. The major indexes moved bare fractions, the Dow dropping, the S&P and the Nasdaq managing gains.


The S&P kept above the 1,100 level, but volume here was lower than Tuesday's, as was the Dow's. A few more days of this could indicate that this rally is not strongly supported and may be running out steam.


The Nasdaq was up slightly on encouraging news from the electronics sector about Black Friday (even I bought a hard drive Friday night), and volume here was actually close to Tuesday's.


Today's star? The small-cap-tracking Russell 2000 picked up, getting back above its 10-day average with a gain of 6.89 points or 1.17%. Steadily-moving-up small-caps can sustain a rally. With the emphasis on "steadily."

RUSSELL 2000 moves up:

Helping the Russell was little StemCells (STEM) on news that the National Institute of Health approved 13 stem cell lines to be used in research.


As to the specifics on employment: The ADP National Employment Report, compiled by payroll administrator Automatic Data Processing, said 169,000 private sector jobs were lost in November. That's fewer than the 195,000 jobs lost in October, but more than the 160,000 cuts that were expected.

The eighth straight decline in job losses at private companies provided evidence that the economy is recovering, but sloooooowly. The ADP report doesn't represent the entire economy but it's a fair enough indicator of what we might see Friday. Economists are expecting that the unemployment rate remained flat at 10.2% last month. All in all, it's no fun for investors. A choppy market without a clear sustainable trend is a discomfiting thing. (And another good reason to hold your dividend stocks close.)

Despite signs of life in manufacturing and housing, the job market remains pretty discouraging. Employers are reluctant to hire with memories of the recession still fresh in their minds, which is understandable. What if recent manufacturing and housing numbers are just flukes, and bound to disintegrate after the artificial government respiration wears off? What looks likely is a few more months of improvement in the economy, followed, say in April or May, by a sudden rush in hiring. Stay, as they say, tuned.

In related and grimmer news, outplacement consultant Challenger, Gray & Christmas reported that layoff intentions slipped to 50,349 in November vs. October's 55,679. In a reminder of how much layoffs have eased, the year-ago total for November was 181,671. But a bad sign is the lack of hiring intentions, totalling only 10,076 in November, down from October's 57,520.

According to SpendingPulse, electronics sales, helped by new video game releases, rose 6.6% iin November, helped by an 8% sales gain on Black Friday (so called because it's the day merchants get back into the black). In addition, online sales are coming back even more than expected, up 12.3% in November compared with November 2008, when sales increased 8.3%.


I won't show a chart of Wednesday's gold price; it looks just like Tuesday's, and Monday's, only higher. Gold futures closed at yet a new high for the 19th session since the beginning of November, briefly topping $1,217 an ounce as demand for gold as the eternal hedge against a weak national currency stayed strong, with the dollar remaining around 15-month lows. Gold futures closed up $12.90 or 1.1% at $1,212 an ounce. Gold futures have soared 37% this year, and have made gains in 17 out of the past 20 weeks. They advanced in all but two trading sessions in November, and have started December with two days of gains.

Oh, okay, here's a chart of Barrick Gold (ABX). Other gold stocks look similar, as does the S&P Gold Trust ETF (GLD).

BARRICK GOLD, a stand-in for most gold stocks and GLD:

The dollar actually gained 22 cents Wednesday, which helped tamp down the rise in stocks, but it's still under $75 against a basket of major currencies, closing at $74.64, down about 14% in the last 12 months. Maybe even more disturbing (the faint of heart may want to avert their eyes) is the chart below, the one that shows how much of U.S. debt is held by other countries. Think this might have anything to do with the gold story?


With the U.S. dollar so very anemic, commodities get a boost (as almost all commodities are denominated in dollars). That includes silver, copper, palladium and steel, which have enjoyed big rides lately. Copper especially benefits in a turnaround, although results have been muddied over the last year or so as Chinese manufacturers have been buying at lows, and hoarding


HECLA MINING, benefiting from silver's big move:

The defensive utilities industry had the best sector gain today, especially with American Electric Power (AEP) and Edison International (EIX) getting Buy ratings from Deutsche Bank:


The energy sector didn't fascinate us today, no doubt owing to the massive buildup in gasoline stocks, as well as big builds in overall oil supplies despite falling imports. Gasoline stocks rose 4.0 million barrels last week, said the Energy Information Administration, with oil stocks up 2.1 million (and delivery-point Cushing stocks up 1.4 million). Distillate stocks were down for the week by about 1.2 million barrels. Refineries operated at a mere 79.7% of capacity, answering the question, "Why are shares of Tesoro (TSO) and Valero (VLO) collapsing?" Demand stayed about the same. Crude futures lost $$1.77 to close at $76.60.


Earnings continue to trickle in. Shoe retailer Collective Brands (PSS) said Wednesday its third-quarter profits fell 22% but still beat Wall Street expectations as sales rose slightly. The operator of Payless and Stride Rite earned $36.9 million or 57 cents per share, down from last year's $47.5 million or 74 cents. Excluding one-time items, the company said it would have earned 61 cents, handily beating the estimated 49 cents. Revenue rose to $867 million from $862.7 million last year, also beating analyst estimates.

COLLECTIVE BRANDS shows that consumers have been spending:

Shares of teen retailer Aeropostale Inc. (ARO) thudded sharply after hours when the company announced disappointing November same-store sales and gave guidance that was only in line with estimates. Actually, November same-store sales rose 7% compared to a decrease of 5% in November last year; it wasn't good enough for analysts who were looking for a 7.7% rise. Aeropostale expects to earn between $1.20 and $1.24 a share in the fourth-quarter of 2009; analysts wanted $1.22 a share. The company saw profit of $62.6 million or 92 cents a share on sales of $568 million, all sharply up from last year but again, not good enough. The stock was up 47 cents or 1.46% to $32.70, before falling $2.65 or 8.10% after-hours.

The Fed's Beige Book report came out Wednesday afternoon, reassuring us that the economic recovery gained a little traction recently as shoppers spent a little more and factories increased production. It was the most chipper assessment by the Federal Reserve since the recession began over two years ago. The Fed's new "snapshot" of business conditions nationwide found that things have generally improved since the last report in late October. Eight of the Fed's 12 regions surveyed reported some pickup in activity or improved conditions; four were mixed or about the same. The new report adds to evidence that the economy is rebounding.

TEXAS INSTRUMENTS -- consumers are coming out of their shells:

Consumers in late November did spend more, with general merchandise and auto sales improving across much of the country. (Most of that was non-U.S. car sales.) Although off 40 cents Wednesday, electronics retailer Best Buy (BBY) had a good month. But merchants are nevertheless keeping inventory low, which puts the kibosh on manufacturing, which hampers manufacturing . . . . Still, Dallas reported improved manufacturing for makers of high-tech equipment, paper and petrochemicals and in fact Texas Instruments (TXN) is up some 10% since the beginning of November. Upticks in food-related production also were mentioned in some regions. The stock of Sara Lee (SLE), on a number of institutional investors' Buy lists, had a sweet November.


The main challenge for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, though, is to sustain the rebound, especially after the benefits of government support fade next year. Naturally, the Fed is expected to hold a key bank lending rate at a record low near zero when it meets on Dec. 15-16. Economists predict the Fed will keep rates at basement levels well into next year, helped by the fact that inflation is behaving itself. The central bank continues to hope that low rates will encourage personal and especially business spending.

Hiring remains a sore spot in general, although in Boston, which has a very health-care- and biopharma-heavy economy, some businesses were starting to hire and reverse pay cuts or wage freezes implemented earlier in the year. In St. Louis, too, the service sector recently started to expand.

But holiday hiring expectations nationwide were mixed, the Fed said, going on to warn that it could take "five or six years" for the job market to return to normal. Terrific. Commercial real estate conditions continued to deteriorate, with most regions still experiencing rising vacancy rates, downward pressure on rents and little, if any, new commercial development.

By contrast, sales and construction activity in the housing market improved across much of the country, according to the Fed survey and also to the Mortgage Bankers' Association index last week. It rose 4.1% last week; the refinance index rose 1.7%. As always, low rates helped: 30-year loans averaged 4.79%, down three basis points for the lowest rate since May. Indications on the housing market are picking up steam. A sustained turnaround in housing would be a long, cool drink of water in the desert.

The main challenge for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is to sustain the rebound, especially after the benefits of government support fade next year. Naturally, the Fed is expected to hold a key bank lending rate at a record low near zero when it meets on Dec. 15-16. Economists predict the Fed will keep rates at basement levels well into next year, helped by the fact that inflation is behaving itself.

And in the Misery Loves Company Division: Mercifully, Dubai World's real-estate catastrophe (maybe you shouldn't try to build islands in the shape of giant palm trees) hasn't washed over the whole world, but it can't be much fun to be a big property holder in Dubai right now. Basically, too much easy money flowed into Dubai, fueling a massive construction boom financed with debt. For a while the debt looked sustainable because it was backed by valuable (for the time being) property. When the global financial crisis hit, Dubai property prices were walloped. Property prices per square foot there fell 45% from Q3 2008 to Q3 2009.

DUBAI PROPERTY VALUES at practically terminal velocity:

Del Monte Foods, Marvel Entertainment, Toll Brothers and Siemens are among those reporting earnings Thursday. Also look for the European Central Bank's interest rate announcement and reports on jobless claims, productivity and costs, and the ISM non-manufacturing index; jobless claims could especially be a market mover. A potentially huge mover -- the employment situation report -- comes out Friday. Investors are waiting for that.