Markets & Finance

Tech Stocks Finish Higher


Stocks Thursday ended mixed, with technology issues climbing and blue-chips slightly negative. The markets have been trading in a range ahead of a crucial report on February employment set for release Friday morning.

Among blue-chips Dow, shares of Intel (INTC), Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), and Merck & Co. (MRK) were strong.

Still, the Dow Jones industrial finished off by 5.11 points, or 0.05%, to 10,588. The broader Standard & Poor's 500-stock index gained 3.84 points, or 0.33%, to 1,154.87. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index gained 21.76 points, or 1.07%, to 2,055.12.

Investors are nervous as some they will get some key economic and corproate reads health gauges before week's end.

After the close of trading Thursday, Intel narrowed its forecast revenue range for the first quarter to $8.0 billion to $8.2 billion. The chipmaker expected gross margin to be 60%, plus or minus a point. In its previous forecast, issued in January, Intel predicted revenues would be $7.9 billion to $8.5 billion.

The company was scheduled to hold a conference call to discuss its mid-quarter outlook at 5:30 p.m. ET.

At 8:30 a.m. ET Friday, the Labor Department will unveil the latest monthly jobs snapshot. Economists on average expect the unemployment rate to be unchanged at 5.6%, with 135,000 new jobs added during February.

Meanwhile, in corporate news, Michael Eisner was removed from his chairman post at Walt Disney (DIS), but he kept the chief executive position despite a 43% vote in favor of removing him. Analysts expect debate over the company's future direction to continue.

Investors will also be digesting news that Dell (DELL) founder Michael Dell gave up the CEO role, but will remain chairman. Kevin Rollins, now COO and president will replace him effective July 16.

On Wednesday, Dow member Merck issued guidance that it sees first-quarter earnings per share falling on a lack of new drugs and the spin-off of its pharmacy benefits unit. It expects to earn 71 cents to 73 cents per share for the quarter, excluding charges.

Major retailers showed strength. Wal-Mart said same-store sales in February rose 6.2%, beating Wall Street's estimate of a 4.9% rise. Target Corp. (TGT) said same-store sales rose 7.5%, beating projections.

The earnings calendar this week is relatively light.

Hotel and casino operator Mandalay Resort Group (MBG) said after the market close that its net income for the fourth quarter rose to $22.8 million or 35 cents per share, up from 6 cents a year ago.

No major earnings reports are due Friday.

Treasury Market

Treasuries finished higher after three days of losses as traders positioned themselves ahead of the employment data, which are widely expected to be positive. Economic strength may cause the Fed to raise rates to curb inflation. Traders are eagerly awaiting Friday's employment report, which is expected to show robust gains.

In economic data, the number of initial jobless claims declined modestly in the week ended Feb. 28, down 7,000 to 345,000 versus a revised 352,000 claims the prior week, the Labor Department said. The results were in line with expectations.

Fourth-quarter business productivity was revised lower, but unit labor costs fell by less than expected as hourly compensation rose. Worker output per hour rose by a 2.6 percent annual rate in the final three months of 2003, versus an initially reported 2.7% increase.

Factory orders in January fell by 0.5%, in line with economists' expectations. "In all, these data show the factory sector expanding in good fashion, with transport sector data casting a shadow on the headline," says economic research outfit Informa Global Markets.

World Markets

European stock markets finished higher Thursday, with help from strength in bank shares. European central bankers kept the region's target rate unchanged. London's Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index added 34 points, or 0.75%, to 4.559.10.

Germany's DAX index gained 62.08 points, or 1.52%, to 4,133.78. In Paris, the CAC 40 increased by 18.43 points, or 0.49%, to 3,776.94.

In Asia, markets finished mixed. The Nikkei 225 index gained 49.87 points, or 0.44%, to 11,401.79, on strength in banks and shipping companies and general optimism for economic recovery. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index lost 2.53 points, or 0.02%, to 13,451.56.


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