For all intents and purposes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI ) ended the day only 11 points higher than where it started, eking out a gain of 0.09%, hardly enough to even register. Though as my colleague Andrew Tonner noted, investors shouldn't interpret this as a sign that nothing significant occurred in between.
What's with the Dow's indecision?
The biggest news on the day came from shipping giant FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) and steel producer Nucor (NYSE: NUE ) . Early in the trading day, FedEx released first-quarter results in line with its previously tempered guidance. More important was its outlook going forward. As I mentioned this afternoon, the company cut its forecast for full-year earnings per share to between $6.20 and $6.60 a share, down from a range of $6.90 to $7.40 a share. While FedEx is admittedly only one company, it's considered a bellwether for the overall economy because of a high correlation between its earnings and the nation's gross domestic product.
Nucor followed suit by preannouncing that its third-quarter results are likely to be in the range of $0.30 to $0.35 a diluted share. That comes in below the $0.41 estimate of analysts polled by MarketWatch.com. The company pinned its disappointing performance on lower steel-mill margins and slowing economic growth both domestically and globally. It also noted: "Volatility in scrap prices, together with a combination of political and economic uncertainty in global markets that is beginning to affect steel buyer confidence, has also disrupted supply chain stocking levels."
Beyond these admittedly downbeat results, the one bright spot came in the form of a survey by the National Association of Home Builders. Known as the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index, the survey revealed that optimism is gaining traction among homebuilders. It climbed for a fifth straight month to its highest point in five years. Despite the positive momentum, however, it's important to note that a majority of homebuilders remain pessimistic about the current state of the industry.
Dow's winners and losers
Leading the way up was Kraft Foods (Nasdaq: KFT ) , which finished the day higher by 1.83%. This is notably its last week on the Dow before being replaced by UnitedHealth Group. According to fellow Fool Anders Bylund: "Today's jump comes from positive analyst comments on Kraft's rock-solid dividend policy, and it may be the company's last hurrah on behalf of the Dow."
At the beginning of October, the well-known food company will split into two. One will retain its North American grocery business -- including brands such as Velveeta, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and Oscar Mayer -- and keep the Kraft handle. The other will house the company's lucrative international snack brands such as Oreo, Cadbury, and Trident Gum -- though neither offspring is sufficiently large to merit continued presence on the Dow.
Leading the way down, alternatively, was aluminum producer Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) , which sank by 0.94%. The impetus for its decline was twofold. First, the New York Federal Reserve released disappointing data yesterday, pointing toward a contraction in manufacturing activity in the New York region. According to the bank's Empire State Index, business activity is at its lowest point in the region since November 2010. While the results are limited in scope geographically, like FedEx's quarterly earnings, they're nevertheless considered a harbinger of things to come for the larger economy.
And second, Alcoa was one of the biggest beneficiaries of last week's Fed-induced pop. As a result, it's to be expected that traders are monetizing gains before setting out in search of new targets. I accordingly agree wholeheartedly with Fool Travis Hoium that investors shouldn't "look at today's oversized drop as anything more than a reaction from the recent run-up."
Investing in choppy waters
While the Dow ended the day right around where it began, it oscillated furiously between positive and negative territory before settling down. With a possible recession under way, an upcoming presidential election, and Europe still struggling to survive, investors would be wise to prepare for more volatility ahead. It's for this reason that I urge you to consider the inviolable stocks identified in our free report: "The 3 Dow Stocks Dividend Investors Need."