It was another positive, but middling day for U.S. stocks, although the Nasdaq did not participate in Monday's gains. The tech-heavy index, which had been leading the broader market higher over the past few weeks, shed 5.45 points to close at 2362.21. The Dow Jones Industrial Average turned in another small gain, rising almost 17.5 points to close at 10642.15 and the S&P 500 notched an even smaller gain, adding half a point to finish the day right at 1150 and some change, the index's critical resistance area.
Stocks got a lift on the back of news that industrial production rose 0.1% in February, the eighth consecutive monthly increase. Economists were projecting the number would be unchanged, so even this slight increase could be viewed as a pleasant surprise. The report, issued by the Federal Reserve, showed upticks in utility use and mining demand along with more orders for computers and semiconductors, which may indicate U.S. businesses are starting to see activity ramp up again. Utility output was up 0.5%, while mining activity was up 2%, likely led by increases in oil and gas drilling activity.
The Fed's New York branch reported that manufacturing in that region expanded again in March, the eighth straight month of gains. The Empire State Index showed a reading of 22.9 in March, down from 24.9 in February, but the employment index reached its highest level since October 2007, according to Bloomberg News. Readings above zero on the Empire State Index are considered positive.
Empire State Survey
Despite the positive industrial production data, Monday was not a good day for commodities. NYMEX-traded crude oil for April delivery fell $1.44 to $79.80. That is the first close below $80 for crude in almost two weeks. A stronger U.S. Dollar did not help matters, nor did concerns that China is eying another interest rate hike, perhaps as soon as next month. Of course, demand worries also pressured oil prices.
The winter demand season has passed and we are still a fair bit away from the summer driving season and those factors may be fueling concerns about the recent rally in crude prices (no pun intended.) Still, gas prices are up more than 16 cents in the past month and more than 88 cents higher than where they were a year ago. News from the Fed and OPEC meetings this week is likely to have a heavy hand in where crude futures finish the week. Thirty-eight of the 40 energy stocks in the S&P 500 traded lower today.
When there is news about Beijing taking steps to cool economic growth, oil is not the only commodity to feel the pain. Predictably, copper received a haircut on Monday due to China concerns. Copper for May delivery slipped 6.5 cents $3.315 per pound. The red metal has lost 10.5 cents since March 5th and if concerns about China's ability to lead a global economic recovery persist, copper prices could be hampered even further.
Proving just how powerful China is these days, the world's largest country's head-butting with Internet search giant Google (GOOG) was probably the reason why the Nasdaq was down today. As I mentioned earlier, orders for computers and semiconductors were up and that should have been a positive catalyst for the Nasdaq.
Alas, it was not and Google shares were slammed $16.36, or nearly 3%, to close at $563.18 on renewed speculation that the company may in fact leave China. Yes, we have heard this news before, but the fact that it is swirling again is not a good thing for Google. Google's volume was roughly 30% higher than average today and as of this writing, the shares were down another $1.62 to $561.97 in the after hours session.
A report in the Financial Times said that censorship talks between Beijing and Google have reached an ''impasse'' and that Google is ''99.9%'' certain to close down its Chinese Internet search engine. To be sure, Google is a gigantic company and the leading search provider in many markets, but we are not talking about an insignificant market of 50 million people here. There are 1.4 billion people living in China and China, perhaps even more so than the U.S., represents a market where Google has a legitimate competitor.
China's home-grown search provider Baidu (BIDU) soared $26.60, or almost 5%, to $576.84 on news that Google may depart China. Volume in Baidu was nearly triple the daily average and the shares are up another $2.66 to $579.50 in after-hours trading. How important is the China market to Google, at least in the eyes of investors? In the past three months Google shares are down about 3% while Baidu is up nearly 30%.
Financials got a bit of lift late in Monday's session as reaction to Sen. Christopher Dodd's (D-CT) financial reform package was not as negative as some may have expected. While plenty of folks on Wall Street may not like the idea that the Dodd bill includes a version of the now infamous Volcker Rule, which requires regulators to ban proprietary trading and limit the relationships banks have with hedge funds, there were no surprises in the proposed legislation.
The other side of the financial reform coin is that support for the Dodd bill remains tepid at best. After all, this is an election year and for all of the recent missteps by Republicans, they are still projected to make gains in both houses of Congress. Many Democrats who face tough reelection battles may feel the path of least resistance (read: the path to reelection) is to stay away from the Dodd bill altogether. At the end of the day, Dodd is retiring (because he knows he could not win his own reelection bid) and this bill is his swan song. My bet is that politicians in both parties realize this and that could imperil the bill's success.
Political chatter aside, financials spent most of the day trading lower, but got a nice bounce at the end of the day and that helped many of the marquee constituents in the group finish the day higher. The Financial Select SPDR (XLF), the most heavily traded financial ETF, finished the day unchanged at $15.54, just three cents off its intraday high and less than a quarter away from its 52-week high. XLF's chart still looks pretty strong.
In other stock-specific news, Wal-Mart (WMT), the world's largest retailer, was the biggest winner in the Dow today after Citigroup boosted its rating on the stock to ''buy'' from ''hold.'' It was the first upgrade of Wal-Mart in over a month. Wal-Mart shares rose $1.52, or 2.82%, to close at $55.42 after touching a new 52-week high of $55.54 earlier in the session.
Citi analyst Deborah Weinswig said Wal-Mart is preparing to reenter the fray to become a dominant player in the U.S. supermarket battle. She expects Wal-Mart to increase its share of that market to 21.6% in 2010 up from 20.5%. Basically what is happening here is that Wal-Mart is going to use price reductions to put the pressure on traditional supermarket chains in an effort to gain market share. Weinswig raised her price target on Wal-Mart to $64 from $54.
Speaking of blue chip names that play in the consumer staples space, PepsiCo (PEP), the number two soft drink maker behind Coca-Cola (KO), matched its rival's recent dividend increase by announcing a 7% dividend increase of its own. Dow component Coke announced a 7% dividend increase last month. Pepsi will now pay annual dividend of $1.92 a share, which is more than what Coke pays at a $1.76 a share.
Pepsi went a step further, perhaps in another attempt to trump its rival, by announcing a $15 billion share repurchase plan. The new buyback plan will replace an existing plan was set to expire in June that has $6.4 billion remaining on it. Pepsi said it plans to repurchase $4.4 billion of its own shares this years. The new buyback program will last through 2013. Pepsi shares gained $1.05, or 1.61%, on the news to close at $66.15 just below the new 52-week high of $66.26 set earlier in today's session.
Based on today's closing price, $15 billion would allow Pepsi to repurchase about 226.7 million of its 1.57 billion shares outstanding. Regardless of one's preference for Coke over Pepsi or vice versa, the choice is clear from an investor's perspective, at least over the last six months when Pepsi is up almost 12% compared to Coke's gain of less than 2%.
Looking at the charts, the Dow remains the only one of the three major U.S. indexes that has not made its way to a new, but Monday's small gain puts the Dow within 85 points of the January peak of 10,729 and less than 110 points away from resistance at 10,750. The Dow traded as low as 10,570, so 10,600 did not hold as intraday support, leading me to believe support is probably stronger at the 10,550 level. Slow and steady appears to be the order of the day for the Dow.
The S&P 500 has climbed the wall of worry to the 1150, but has not broken through that level with any veracity. On the other hand, it can be argued that the bears have done little to force the index back below the 1150 level, at least when it comes to closing prices and it would appear that 1140 has now emerged as support. The SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), the largest ETF by assets in the world and tracking ETF for the S&P 500, rose for a 12th straight day on Monday, its best winning streak since 1995, according to Bloomberg.
S&P 500 Chart
Heading into today, the Nasdaq looked primed for some profit taking, but given the small decline, it is hard to argue that real profit taking occurred. Of the Nasdaq's four horsemen, Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Research In Motion (RIMM), only Google declined in earnest for the reasons I highlighted earlier. Amazon and Apple booked small losses and RIMM was actually up. Remember that Baidu is also a member of the Nasdaq 100, so if Google moves down on China news, that loss is muted by a Baidu gain. Nasdaq support looks firm at 2325.
Minutes from the FOMC meeting will be released tomorrow at 2:15PM Eastern time, so it would not be surprising to see lethargic trade heading into the that announcement. Language from the minutes will be what the market is watching and any hint, no matter how faint, that the Fed is moving toward rate tightening would be negative news for equities. Positive Fed sentiment could give the S&P 500 the gas it needs to really break out.