Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's chairman's semiannual monetary policy testimony to the House Financial Services Committee was the big news Wednesday but in truth, we didn't learn much that was new. For example, the Fed chief assured the committee that the central bank is investigating what tools to use once the economy requires higher rates, and reiterated that the economy still needs record-low interest rates for several months at least because the climb out of the deep recession is expected to be slow. The stock market was grateful for that, and the reassurance of low rates offset some distressing news about January new-home sales and prices.

The chairman insisted that last Thursday's surprise increase in the emergency-lending "discount" rate to banks wouldn't mean higher borrowing costs for consumers and companies any time soon, and he's been proven right so far, as the market has not thudded since then. After an admittedly volatile day, the three major indexes closed up just about 1% -- but not on significant volume.


Not surprisingly, the dollar fell against the euro and yen after the reaffirmation of low rates, but only slightly:


To recap, Bernanke again reminded Congress that over the next couple of years the job market is expected to remain weak and inflation will stay down (one wonders how he knows that about inflation) . . . . Voicing a growing worry, the chairman noted that "Of particular concern, because of its long-term implication for workers' skills and wages, is the increasing incidence of long-term unemployment." (Listen, workers' skills and wages aren't even half of it. This is a frightening subject indeed, and time and space limitations forbid my doing it justice here. For a highly insightful, in-depth discussion of this problem, take a look later at the current issue or the online version of The Atlantic magazine.) . . . . Among other assertions, Bernanke said "most economists" agree that the massive stimulus passed last year has created jobs but that we could see another similar action . . . . He said the Fed expects the economy to expand by between 3% and 3.5% this year and between 3.5% and 4.5% in 2011; the unemployment rate is seen falling only slowly, to around 7% by the end of 2012. (We'll see about that. The jobless rate fell to 9.7% in January from 10% in December, but a separate government survey showed the economy continued to shed jobs last month.)

The market liked what it heard, sending practically everything up except some commodities and the dollar. Financial-stock shareholders seemed especially pleased and helped pull the Dow up 91.75 points after its 101-point downhill mogul run Tuesday. Most major financials -- Bank of America (BAC), Citigroup (C), Wells Fargo (WFC), Morgan Stanley (MS) -- were up around 2% or more, reflected by the S&P Bank ETF:


Even more enthusiastic were some regional banks like Umpqua Holdings (UMPQ), SVB Financial Group (SIVB), First Merit (FMER), PacWest Bancorp (PACW), Fulton Financial (FULT) and MB Financial, the last of which jumped $1.05 or 5.20%. Need I add that many bank stocks pay dividends. Many if not most of those dividends have fallen, some drastically, in the last two years; several are now climbing slowly back. When doing your due diligence on dividend stocks, check to make sure the worst is over.


The tech-heavy Nasdaq rose Wednesday, helped by software company Autodesk Inc. (ADSK), who reported after the close Tuesday. Autodesk announced stronger-than-expected Q4 earnings and revenue, signifying that corporate wallets are opening as demand improves for its architects' and designers' software -- a very good sign. Many of the company's customers appeared to be upgrading their software, healthy for both revenue and margins. The company reported net income of $50.1 million or 21 cents a share after a year-ago loss of $105.30 million or 47 cents. Excluding items, Autodesk earned 30 cents a share, beating analysts' estimated 23 cents. Net revenue including licensing and maintenance fell to $456.1 million from $489.8 million last year but also easily beat analysts' target of $432 million.

Autodesk is well positioned for increased revenue in 2010 because of its international client base as well as improved U.S. capital spending. Shareholders loved it; the stock gained almost 9% on outstanding volume.


The Nasdaq was up 22.46 or just over 1% to 2,235; a nice move but volume was only so-so.


The Dow almost but not quite made up for its Tuesday rout, closing at 10,374.16 or 0.89%, but also not yet thrilling:


And the S&P500 topped its 1,100 resistance by 5 points or 0.97%, but it's still 'way too soon to break out the good champagne:


There was big volume, though, for several companies announcing earnings; more on that below.

Another company breaking to a new 52-week high on very good volume, was retailer Limited Brands (LTD), parent of the demure Victoria's Secret. The company saw a sharp rise in fourth-quarter profit, although it was the result of cost-cutting and tight inventory controls. Still, profit topped expectations and, added to a higher February outlook, bumped the stock up 2.4%. Limited earned $356.1 million or $1.08 per share, sharply up from $16.1 million or 5 cents a year ago. Quarterly revenue, helped by a 1% rise in same-store sales, reached $3.06 billion, from $3 billion in the year-ago period. For the year, same-store sales (sales at stores open at least a year) had a 4% drop but adjusted income at $1.01 a share gained 3 cents over the prior year.

Never really famous for bargains, Victoria's Secret has seen the light and is luring customers in with lower prices for some articles. It's evidently been paying off because earlier this month, the company reported a 6% rise in January sales at stores open at least a year. February should come in even higher, possibly in the low double-digits. The stock, like the company's models, looks like it has excellent support:


Over in entertainment DreamWorks Animation (DWA) reported that revenue slipped 3% to $194.2 million -- there should be an "only" in front of that number because the studio hasn't had a theatrical release since last March's Monsters vs. Aliens. Still, the company has the benefit of releasing its films on IMAX and in 3-D, which jacks up ticket prices; even bigger movers were DVD, pay-per-view and television licensing, which drove DreamWorks's $194.2 million in fourth-quarter revenue, well ahead of the $176.95 million analysts were looking for. The same was true for earnings, which at 50 cents a share fell short of last year but left estimates of 37 cents in the dust. Still, investors in their perverse way wanted more and sent the stock down 1.8%.

Ever since Disney (DIS) acquired Pixar, DreamWorks Animation is the only pure computer animation play, and with its franchises, it can expect big things from sequels of proven properties. If Shrek Forever After is even remotely like its predecessors -- Wow; and that's to be followed this year by How to Train Your Dragon and Megamind. A potentially promising wild card here is the 3-D television sets set to come out starting this year (and about which my husband is already making noise. Terrific: Now we can search for the remote and the glasses.) Disney, Sony (SNE) and Discovery Communications (DISCA) are already planning 3-D cable programming this year, which should lead to sales of new sets, good news for chipmakers, display-panel makers, cable companies and electronics retailers, to name a few.


One of the biggest announcers today, up $6.09 or $12.26, was discount retailer Dollar Tree (DLTR), who earned $135 million or $1.52 a share, up from last year's $105.2 million or $1.15; analysts were expecting $1.44. Sales rose an impressive 12.4% to $1.56 billion, while same-store sales grew 6.6%. All this while coming out of a recession, mind you. Dollar Tree expects 2010 earnings between $3.96 and $4.23 a share with sales of $5.59 billion to $5.76 billion. The company, who currently operates some 3,800 stores, plans to open 220 Dollar Tree stores and 25 Deal$ stores during the year, and wants to ultimately operate up to 7,000 Dollar Tree stores in the U.S. Who can argue with that kind of success?


Other companies announcing earnings today were apparel retailer Chico's FAS (CHS), who earned an adjusted $18.8 million or 10 cents a share, compared to a loss of $24.8 million or 14 cents last year, better than estimated. Same-store sales climbed 14.6%. Analysts wanted revenue of $421.1 million and got $435.7 million. The stock still lost four cents to $13.88 on three-times average volume; doubtless the news was already factored into the price . . . Luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers (TOL) posted another loss for its first quarter, but narrower than last year's: 25 cents a share, better than the 35 cent loss analysts were expecting. The stock, 22% off its August high, lost 12 cents on high volume.

Let me get just briefly back to the Fed chairman's remarks about housing. The Fed is sticking to its plans to end buying $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities by the end of March, something that might lead to slightly higher mortgage rates, which some contrarian economists think could actually goose the housing market as people rush to lock in rates before they rise again.

(We could soon be seeing a new, tamer Federal Reserve, not a bad prospect. The House has approved a financial regulation bill that would focus great scrutiny on the Fed's interest-rate decisions, and the Senate wants to eliminate the Fed's regulatory powers over banks, after some senators accused Bernanke of missing every signal of the crisis. Stay tuned.)

Finally, it's Bernanke's opinion that the commercial real estate market -- retail, industrial and office space, despite some recent improvement -- presents the greatest risk where obtaining credit is concerned. Even so, shares of the most widely-held commercial real estate investment trusts have held up reasonably well over the last year, as this graph of Resource Capital (RSO) shows. Although buyer beware: RSO, like some other commercial REITs (and even though it just lowered its quarterly payout), pays a double-digit dividend that could be too hot not to cool down. Other commercial REITS that you may care to glance at, if you're interested in the group, are Lexington Realty Trust (LXP) and Washington Real Estate (WRE), with more realistic 6+% yields. Do not neglect to check dividend history.


Wednesday's residential housing news was not at all good (except for buyers, of course). January with its unpleasant weather and post-Christmas bills is usually a tough month for the housing sector anyway, and relentlessly low prices and heavy inventory don't help. But new-home sales managed to fall in January to a much lower-than-expected annual rate of 309,000. Prices fell, too, with the median price down 5.6% on the month to $203,500, for another year-over-year decline, now at minus-2.4%. Inventory jumped to 9.1 months, reversing eight months of incremental improvement.

Graphs abound of home prices and home sales, but here's an unusual take on the subject -- home ownership rates through the end of 2009.

HOME OWNERSHIP RATES, 2001 to present:

From its peak in 2004 of 69.2% to the Q409 rate of 67.2%, the home ownership rate declined by two percentage points, but appears for the time being to have stabilized. Interestingly, despite the declining home ownership rate, there were more owner-occupied housing units at the end of 2009 than there were at the end of 2004. The reason for this apparent paradox is population growth. While the home ownership growth rate declined substantially, the number of households in the United States continued to grow throughout the recession, and a majority of heads of household continue to own homes. Is 67.2% the new normal?

As for crude, there was a rise in imports last week to the tune of 3 million barrels -- but there was a also a 700,000 barrel drawdown at the main delivery point, on top of crude-oil product draws. Gasoline stocks fell 900,000 barrels (only the second down week this year); distillates fell 600,000 barrels. To meet the reductions, refineries actually boosted output of both gasoline and distillates.

Inventory levels of all products remain high and demand remains soft, with gasoline demand showing the sixth straight year-over-year decline, down -0.3% last week. Demand for distillates is down 6.8% Oil fell a few cents on the news but a weaker dollar against the Euro sent it up $1.48 or 1.88% at the close to $80.34.


On that subject, drilling contractor Transocean (RIG) posted disappointing Q4 results -- $2.24 per share, although that includes several one-time items and may not be comparable to the consensus of $2.56. At any rate, revenues fell 10% to $2.55 billion, well short of the $2.83 billion consensus. The market sat it in the corner with a 5.7% loss on volume of almost 20 million.


On Thursday, important consumer discretionary-company announcements will include Revlon (REV), Kohl's (KSS), Heinz (HNZ), and Safeway (SWY); also look for Deutsche Telekom (DT) and France Telecom (FTE), Gerdau American Steel (GNA) and miner Sociedad Quimica de Chile (SQM).

Thursday features the Health Care Summit and more comments by Ben Bernanke, as well as jobless claims, durable goods orders and the natural gas report. With GDP and the Chicago ISM survey of purchasing managers, Friday should prove exciting.

This will be my last regular Market Wrap. I've certainly enjoyed writing these Wednesday updates and hope you've enjoyed reading them. Many thanks for your suggestions and comments. Good luck and good trading to all.