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After paying so much attention to global economics, the stock market turned back to the U.S., as budget and other fiscal matters took center stage. Fallout over the Obama administration's budget proposal continued to circulate as Congress mulls whether to extend payroll tax cuts through 2012. Just before 1:45 p.m. EST, the Dow Jones Industrials (INDEX: ^DJI ) were down 44 to 12,830, while the S&P 500 was down six points at 1,346.
Among stocks in the Dow, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) rose about 0.5%. Rising retail sales in January likely helped the company, as the Commerce Department reported higher demand, especially for electronics and sporting goods. Yet as the domestic competitive picture remains tight, with Target (NYSE: TGT ) starting to emphasize groceries as part of its response to Wal-Mart's supercenters, Wal-Mart is stepping up its attempts to grow in overseas markets like China.
Merck (NYSE: MRK ) also rose slightly, despite some bad news on the European front. According to the new austerity pact that Greek lawmakers agreed to earlier this week, the nation must cut its spending on drugs by about $1.3 billion, forcing patients to make larger co-payments. The move is expected to spur an increase in demand for generic drugs, hurting name-brand manufacturers like Merck. Even worse, if the move is successful in Greece, other cash-strapped governments may try to follow the country's example.
Finally, AT&T (NYSE: T ) dropped about 0.4% after reports that the coming update to the iPad will include models that run on the carrier's 4G wireless network. At least until now, telecom companies selling 3G-capable iPads haven't subsidized their sales with discounts -- in fact, those iPads have sold at a premium to base WiFi-only versions. With data-only plans costing a lot less than voice plans, lack of subsidies isn't likely to change anytime soon.
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