The major U.S. indexes, two of them at least, closed February in fine fashion as stocks posted their third straight monthly gain as investors opted to focus on news that was a bit more relevant to the U.S. Some mergers and acquisitions news and positive comments from Warren Buffett helped the S&P 500 gain more than half a percent while the Dow added almost 1% while the Nasdaq eked out a small gain.
Before getting into the stock-specific news, I will quickly review the economic data points that played a role in today's positive market action. The Chicago Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) was one of those bullish data points as the index soared to 71.2 in February from 68.8 in January, easily topping the reading of 67.7 expected by economists. Remember, anything above 50 is considered positive. Going beyond the headline number, there is more good news. The new orders index increased to 75.9, the best reading since late 1983 and the sixth-best reading ever. The production component rose to 78.2, which is the third highest reading in that indexâ€™s history, according to Bespoke Investment Group.
The headline number is the best since July 1988 and the backlog reading of 61.8 is tops since July 1994, so overall, this was a very bullish report.
In other decent economic news, the Commerce Department said personal incomes increased 1% on a seasonally adjusted basis in January, good for the biggest jump in a year and a half. Consumer spending rose 0.2%. Economists were expecting personal incomes to rise 0.9% and consumer spending to increase by 0.4%.
No surprise here. If there was going to be tough economic report to absorb it was bound to involve the housing market and that was the case today. The National Association of Realtors said pending home sales slid 2.8% in January to 88.9 from 91.5 in December.
NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun made comments that, while somewhat dour, should not be viewed as a surprise, saying that there is still plenty of inventory that is the result of prior real estate sins that needs to dealt with. ''...there is still an elevated level of shadow inventory of distressed homes from past lending mistakes that need to go through the system,'' Yun said. For those that love economic data reports or trading around those events, this is a busy week on that front, culminating with Friday's February jobs report. As for today's reports, I will say two out of three is not bad at all.
Pending Home Sales
At the stock level, I believe it was good to see U.S. equities get a lift despite the fact that nothing has changed in the Middle East. In fact, one could argue the situation is worse. A mad man still controls Libya, though how strong the threads he is hanging on by appear up for debate. Protests have spread to Oman. The situation in Bahrain is tense and Saudi Arabia could very well see protests of its own in the coming days.
I do not think the timing of Warren Buffett's annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A, BRK-B) shareholders could have been better. The letter was released along with the company's fourth-quarter earnings report on Saturday and it made for some interesting and uplifting weekend reading. Well, I suppose if one is extremely bearish on stocks this was not an uplifting piece of correspondence, but these are the breaks the bears have to deal with.
To say Buffett was overtly bullish in the letter's tone is accurate. The Oracle of Omaha encouraged investors to ignore the doom and gloom prognostications that so many politicians and pundits offer up with such frequency adding that ''Human potential is far from exhausted.''
That was one of the uplifting parts of the letter. As for the stuff that investors and traders care about, Berkshire ended 2010 $38.2 billion in cash, leading Buffett to proclaim that Berkshire's ''elephant gun has been reloaded'' and that his ''trigger finger is itchy.'' In other words, Buffett wants to make another major acquisition, which is not surprising given that Berkshire's last big deal, the acquisition of railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe, was viewed as a primary catalyst behind the Berkshire's stellar profit report.
I do not want to get in the guessing game of what companies could make for Berkshire takeover targets, but you can read the letter (HERE) and see what types of firms appeal to Buffett. I have included the chart of Berkshire's Class ''B'' shares since they are far more obtainable to most investors than the Class ''A'' shares.
Berkshire B Chart
It was not the most active of Merger Mondays that we have seen, but there was one deal of size worth noting and it may indicate that real estate investment trusts (REITs) are continuing a rebound that started last year.
Nationwide Health Properties (NHP) surged almost 10% after rival Ventas (VTR) announced it would acquire the company for $5.7 billion in stock, a deal that values Nationwide Health at a 15.5% premium to last Friday's closing price. The transaction, which is scheduled to close in the third quarter, only adds to the dominance of Ventas in the healthcare REIT sector as the company is already the largest in that market niche.
Nationwide operates assisted living facilities and nursing homes and Ventas will have more than 1,300 properties in the U.S. and Canada when the deal is completed. Ventas is one of the more acquisitive names in the REIT space, having paid $1.5 billion for Atria Senior Living back in October.
Nationwide Health Chart
One interesting case among stocks that did not participate in the broader market's party was apparel and fragrance maker Kenneth Cole (KCP), which shed more than 7% after the company said CEO Jill Granoff is leaving. Chairman and Chief Creative Officer Kenneth Cole will take over on an interim basis. The company also reported a narrower fourth-quarter loss of $2.7 million, or 15 cents per share, compared with $52 million, or $2.88 per share, a year earlier. Revenue jumped 10% to $107.9 million as same-store sales increased 14.1%.
I say Kenneth Cole's decline today is interesting because it could have been worse if not for the fact that the stock was among the first to have short-selling in it restricted as regulators are coming with new ways to keep short-sales in one name from spreading to others.
Kenneth Cole Chart
It looks like shorts are starting to throw in the towel. Shares borrowed and sold to profit from declines dropped four straight months and represented 3.3 percent of all stock in January, Bloomberg News reported, citing data from NYSE Euronext.
Looking at the charts, the S&P 500 was able to clear some Fibonacci resistance at 1325 to close at 1327 and that could help set the index up for a run back to 1340. Barclays adjusted its S&P 500 forecast to 1450 today, up from 1420 and boosted its profit estimate to $93 from $91. More good economic news will probably lead to more bullish forecast adjustments.
S&P 500 Chart
The Dow Jones Industrial Average endured quite a week last, but failed to present some buyers with the deep dip they were hoping for so that they could do some shopping. The blue-chip index was on the mend again today, taking out some resistance at 12,187 and falling just shy of another resistance point at 12,235. Chevron (CVX) was a catalyst with a gain of 1.6% and other high price-tag constituents such as McDonald's (MCD) and 3M (MMM) also posted noteworthy gains on the day.
The Nasdaq's performance was not as stellar. The index gained barely more than a point and failed to move above resistance at 2788 after spending a good part of the afternoon in the red. Amazon (AMZN) may have been the culprit as that stock shed 2.3% after UBS lowered its rating to ''neutral'' from ''buy.'' Remember, the iPad 2 announcement is scheduled for Wednesday, and that is a potential catalyst to get the Nasdaq moving more in sync with its counterparts.
Today's fun fact is especially relevant since Tuesday is the first day of March. The first day of a new month is normally pretty good for stocks as highlighted by this factoid courtesy of Bloomberg News: The three biggest gains in the past seven months -- and 5 of the 25 biggest rallies in 2010 -- occurred on the first trading day of the month.
Before I depart and wish you a good week, I am going to take this opportunity to blow of a bit of market-related steam. I listened to a pair of comments over the weekend that have stuck with me. I will retell the stories in reverse order.
First, I am not a big fan of awards shows, but I go to my parents' house for dinner every Sunday and my mom had the Oscars on. While I never condone political interjections in acceptance speeches at the Oscars, I have to admit I enjoyed it when the directors of the best documentary, a film called the ''Inside Job,'' which chronicles the financial crisis, took the stage and one of them pointed out no executive involved in the crisis is in jail today.
Oddly enough, on Saturday night I was at local watering hole and was standing behind two people that work in the mortgage business from what I could gather of their conversation. Their conversation drifted to Countrywide when both agreed that Countrywide has ''gotten a bum wrap'' and really is a ''good company.'' I promptly finished my adult beverage and left because I was finding it hard to bite my tongue.