Markets & Finance

Stocks Finish Mixed


Stocks finished mixed on Thursday as the Dow was lifted by positive expectations for aerospace and defense concern Boeing (BA) while the Nasdaq was hurt by negative news from the tech sector. Oil prices soaring above $55 a barrel also pressured stocks.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 21.06 points, or 0.19%, to 10,833.03. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 0.39 points, or 0.03%, to 1,210.47. The Nasdaq composite index fell 9.10 points, or 0.44%, moving to 2,058.40.

Looking ahead to Friday, investors will be looking for results from the holding company run by the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett: Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA).

Investors will also get a heavy dose of economic news on Friday. Key will be the February

employment report. with nonfarm payrolls expected to rise by 195,000 for the month vs. 146,000 in the previous month. Meantime, the unemployment rate is seen rising to 5.3% from 5.2%.

In a separate report, the University of Michigan consumer sentiment gauge is seen ticking up to 94.4 in February from 94.2 in Janaury. And facotry orders in January are expected to register a decline of 0.4% from an increase of 0.3% in December.

On Thursday, Boeing was leading the blue chips higher on expectations that it would see demand for its jets and other products increase.

Crude oil for April delivery soared to a high of $55.20 per barrel on NYMEX Thursday afternoon, just short of the Oct. 27 intraday high of $55.65 for the active month contract. S&P MarketScope cites growing speculation is growing that demand will outpace supply; continued low temperatures in the northeastern U.S.; and Wednesday's reports showing reduced gasoline and distillates inventories. Plus, hedge funds are moving heavily into energy and other commodity futures in search of better returns.

The higher energy prices are stoking concerns that the economy could be sapped by record high energy costs while profit margins are squeezed if firms can't pass costs along to customers, according to economic research group Informa Global Markets.

Techs led the Nasdaq lower. Semiconductor stocks were in trouble after JP Morgan lowered its first-quarter revenue estimate for chipmaker Intel (INTC) by $100 million to $9.2 billion. The investment bank said Intel's revenue could be squeezed by insufficient production.

Apple (APPL) stock was off after rival Napster (NAPS) raised its revenue guidance because of strong demand for its new music subscription service which competes with Apple's iTunes service.

In other news, Bank of America (BAC) said it would pay $460.5 million to settle a lawsuit that alleges the bank hid risks from WorldCom Inc. investors when it helped the disgraced telecom sell billions of dollars of bonds.

Electronics retailer Best Buy (BBY) warned it sees fourth-quarter profits at best at the low end of its range of expectations.

Pier 1 Imports (PIR) reduced its profit forecast after February same-store sales fell by 15.3%, worse than expected.

Del Monte Foods (DLM) reported profits dropped 9% because rising costs more than offset price increases.

Meantime, positive economic news kept the market from posting bigger losses. A gauge on service-sector activity for February registered only slightly below market expectations and higher than the previous month. The Institute of Supply Management's gauge rose to 59.8 for the month 59.2 in January, according to Informa Global Markets. Informa had pegged a rise of 60. Any number above 50 indicates expansion.

The first revision to fourth quarter productivity data showed a greater-than-expected 2.1% rise, rather than the slight 0.8% first reported. Overall output growth in the fourth quarter is now put at 3.7% rather than 2.8%, while hours are down 1.6% rather than 1.9%, Informa says.

In a separate report, first-time jobless claims for the week ended Feb. 26 fell by 1,000 to 310,000 after a revised print of 311,000 the week before. That left the smoothed four-week moving average down to 307,000--more than a four-year low, Informa says.

In other corporate news Thursday, coffee chain retailer Starbucks (SBUX) reported that revenues in February surpassed expectations.

Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), the world's biggest retailer, posted 4.1% higher same-store sales in February, topping analyst expectations.

Coach (COH) increased its second half guidance, crediting better-than-expected sales of its upscale accessories for spring.

In merger news, The Wall Street Journal said Thursday that oil major Chevron (CVX) is mulling a bid to buy rival Unocal (UCL).

Treasury Market

Treasuries finished in negative territory, helped lower by large option-related sales. Sentiment started to turn more negative just after noon ET when news that several large investment bank economists had sharply raised their estimates for nonfarm payrolls growth in Friday's employment report. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 4.38%.

World Markets

European stock markets closed mixed on Thursday. In London, the Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 was up 22 points, or 0.44%, to 5,014.80 as AstraZeneca received positive comments from the FDA over its cholesterol lowering treatment Crestor, while the oil and gas sector rose sharply on price strength in crude.

Germany's DAX index lost 20.16 points, or 0.46%, to 4,373.27 in low-volume trading, with the spike in oil prices and in-line results from Deutsche Telekom the main factors determining the action.

In Paris, the CAC 40 index eased 1.37 points, or 0.03%, to 4,061.35 with a few earnings reports lending key support. Thomson was among the leading CAC stocks after posting a narrower-than-expected fiscal year loss, after restructuring charges.

Asian markets closed higher on Thursday. Japan's Nikkei-225 index rose 42.75 points, or 0.36%, to close at 11,856.46, marking the sixth consecutive higher close. Hotel operator Fujita Kanko spiked to a five-year high after Daiwa Research initiated the stock with a "1" recommendation.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng Index gained 41.59 points, or 0.30%, to 13,892.37. Oil related names such as Petrochina rose on the back of strong oil prices.


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