More news of European fiscal woes was not enough to deter stocks from taking a small part of yesterday's big losses back as all three major U.S. indexes managed gains on Wednesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average moved back above 11,000, gaining 53 points to finish the day at 11,045.27, but the S&P 500 could not reclaim 1200, adding less than eight points to settle at 1191.36. The Nasdaq, held back by restaurant stocks, added less than three tenths of one point to close at 2471.73.
While those gains are not much to get excited about and they certainly pale in comparison to Tuesday's loss, it can be argued that stocks moving higher by any amount on a day when Europe's sovereign debt woes continued to dominate the headlines is no small feat. Stocks and commodities were roiled yesterday on news of Portugal's credit rating being cut and continued concerns about the ability of the Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund to actually get a bailout package together for Greece.
The Portugal downgrade really should have not caught anyone by surprise as that country was widely speculated to be the next shoe to drop after Greece, and as I have previously noted, Portugal's economy is even smaller than Greece's. That said, this Greek tragedy is dragging on far too long and the amount of money the country may need seems to grow, and exponentially at that, every few days. For a while there it seemed like Greece needed about $60 billion to meet a May 19 deadline on debt coming due. That total is far higher than Greece originally said it would need.
To make matters worse, several media outlets reported today Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, told German officials that Greece may need close to $160 billion over the next several years. At the close of trading on Tuesday, Greek bonds were sporting the highest yields in the world, even higher than comparable Venezuelan issues.
All of this is bad news, but remember that the acronym is ''PIIGS'' and that means there are several other candidates to make a mess of equity markets. Portugal and Greece have already chimed in. On Wednesday the ''S'' had its day in the day in the sun and I do not mean that in a good way. Standard & Poor's downgraded Spain's credit rating to ''AA'' from ''AA+.'' That means the country has a ''very strong capacity'' to pay its debts and the rating is still investment grade.
Again, this turn of events cannot be considered shocking. Sure, Spain's debt load is 53% of national income compared to 115% for Greece, according to the Associated Press, but Spain is the ninth largest economy in the world, so this is kind of a big deal. I say the Spain news is not surprising because in some regards, Spain's economy is eerily similar to that of the U.S. A real estate bubble fueled by easy access to credit spurred Spain's GDP in the go-go days of 2005-2007, but when the bubble burst, the aftermath was not pretty. Now Spain faces the specter of one of the highest unemployment rates in the Eurozone and future growth that can only be deemed sluggish.
There are no country-specific ETFs for Greece and Portugal, much to the chagrin of many short sellers, but there is a Spain ETF, the iShares MSCI Spain Index (EWP). To its credit, EWP was down less than 2% on volume that was more than triple the daily average. Then again, EWP is down almost 20% year-to-date.
Spain ETF Chart
The effects of the European contagion may be more wide-reaching than many investors previously imagined. I mean who would have thought this company would be taken to the woodshed on concerns of a European sovereign debt crisis?
That is right, Aflac (AFL), a company known perhaps more for its advertising campaign than the products it sells, has roughly $2 billion in exposure to Greek and Portuguese debt. According to Bloomberg News, Aflac owns $1 billion in Greek bank debt, $750 million in Portuguese bank debt and another $285 million Greek sovereign debt. A toxic investment portfolio if there ever was one. The end result is on a day that Aflac reported first-quarter results that beat Street estimates, the stock still traded down by more than 5% on almost five times the average daily volume.
There were some bright spots for stocks on Wednesday. Dow Chemical (DOW), the largest U.S. chemicals maker, said its first-quarter profit rose to $466 million, or 41 cents a share, from $24 million, or three cents a share, a year earlier. Sales soared 48% to $13.42 billion from $9.04 billion. Analysts were expecting a profit of 30 cents a share on revenue of $12.9 billion.
Like rival DuPont (DD) said yesterday, Dow noted it is seeing signs of a strong economy. Dow's chemicals are used in a variety of products from agriculture seeds to furniture to electronics and appliances, so this is one company that has its pulse on the consumer and the economy at large. Improving home sales and durable goods data are positive catalysts for companies like Dow, but while the company did give a rosy assessment of the U.S. economy, demand growth was fueled by emerging markets, led by Brazil, China, India and Eastern Europe.
Dow also noted that it realized $275 million in synergies related to its acquisition of Rohm & Haas, a purchase that was viewed as controversial when the transaction was announced. Shares of Dow Chemical rose $1.76, or 5.85% to close at $31.83 after earlier touching a new 52-week high of $31.96.
Dow Chemical Chart
Comcast (CMCSA), the largest U.S. cable company, said its first-quarter operating income jumped 6.8% to $1.9 billion on revenue of $9.2 billion. Analysts had forecast a top line of $9.15 billion. In another sign that the economic recovery may be gaining some steam, Comcast said its cable advertising revenue rose 23% in the quarter. That marks the company's first quarterly ad growth in two years, according to the New York Times.
Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Craig Moffet said Comcast has ''an awfully nice tailwind...'' Comcast is losing subscribers to rivals such as AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and DirecTV (DTV), but it did gain 590,000 new Internet, telephone and video subscribers. Comcast's free cash flow rose by 38% to $1.89 billion. The stock was up 35 cents to $18.81 after making a new 52-week high at $19.20 earlier in the day. Volume was more than twice the daily average.
After the market closed, a knight in shining armor finally emerged to save struggling smart phone maker Palm (PALM). Dow component Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), the world's largest maker of personal computers, will pay about $1.2 billion in cash for Palm in a deal that values Palm at $5.70 a share. News of the deal, which is expected to close in the third quarter, sent Palm shares up almost 26% to $5.83 after the stock closed at $4.63.
Analysts are already saying that a bidding war for Palm is not likely to materialize given the high price HP is paying. Remember that Palm was trading around $3 earlier this month and that the acquisition news had been tossed around for weeks, so it may not be reasonable to expect other suitors to emerge for Palm. Palm is not a profitable company and HP has plenty of cash to throw around, making a challenge to HP's offer an unattractive proposition for other comopanies.
There was not a lot of good news to go around on the Nasdaq while the market was open as a surprising sector hampered the index. Restaurant stocks were bludgeoned as several of the sector's marquee names offered disappointing outlooks. Panera Bread fell by more than 7% after saying it will earn 81 cents to 83 cents a share in the second quarter. Analysts had been expecting a profit of 84 cents a share. The stock is still up close to 50% in the past year.
PF Chang's China Bistro (PFCB) fell 2.54% due to a weak first-quarter report and outlook. The Cheesecake Factory (CAKE) joined in the declines, falling by 7% on the back of its own disappointing second-quarter outlook while Texas Roadhouse (TXRH) fell by more than 6% after Global Hunter Securites downgraded the stock to ''neutral'' from ''buy,'' while saying there is limited upside in the shares.
All of those declines pale in comparison to the tumble endured by Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD), which dropped $8.71, or 17%, to close at $42.30. Volume was almost 10 times the daily average. The company's first-quarter results beat estimates, but April same-store sales are looking sluggish and investors seem to be doubting the company's ability to meet 2010 profit growth of 20%. Making matters worse was an Oppenheimer downgrade of Buffalo Wild Wings to ''perform'' from ''outperform.''
Buffalo Wild Wings Chart
For now, it looks like 11,000 will act as support for the Dow. After that 10,850 is the next support level, but good news from the Federal Reserve regarding its stance on keeping interest rates low for an ''extended period,'' 10,850 may not be seen in the coming days. Of course, all bets are off if things get worse for Greece and friends. Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Procter & Gamble (PG) report earnings before the bell tomorrow.
With the S&P 500 residing below 1200, it is evident that 1180-1185 is the first support area, but the 1210 range could once again act as a resistance. Along with the aforementioned earnings reports, there are several other marquee names from the energy and materials sectors reporting tomorrow that could boost the S&P 500 higher, if the outlooks are good. Apache (APA), ConocoPhillips (COP), Occidental Petroleum (OXY) and Potash (POT) all report before the bell.
S&P 500 Chart
The Nasdaq is still lingering right around critical support at 2470, so it will be interesting to see if the restaurant stocks remain a drag on the index for the rest of this week. I believe the Nasdaq would have traded a little bit higher today had it not been for the carnage seen in that particular group. Closes below 2470 would be concerning because that could spell a return to 2400.
No, Wednesday's trade was not strong enough to make up for Tuesday's losses, but it does appear dip buying is still a relevant theme. The ''X'' factor in how stocks finish the week is likely to revolve around Europe. If some convincing Greece bailout news does not emerge before markets close on Friday, I would not be surprised to see some choppy trade as neither buyers nor shorts will want to be carrying positions into the weekend.