Dow Survives Gauntlet of Fire

Don't ask me how, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI  ) finished the day in positive territory, closing higher by 18 points, despite a bevy of abominable economic news from around the world. Indeed, given the odds, the performance reminded me of a scene from The A-Team, in which the group's 1983 GMC Vandura, piloted by the insane Captain Murdock, barreled through a gauntlet of fire to safety.

Speaking of a gauntlet of flames...
The most troubling news came from Europe, where Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti slashed his country's growth forecast for 2012, announcing that the continent's third largest economy is likely to contract by 2.4%, or nearly twice its previous estimate. Speaking after a cabinet meeting today, Monti said: "The economic framework of the EU has improved with regard to [its] economic policies but has worsened with regard to the recession and the direction of interest rates."

Fears also continue to mount about whether Spain will request a bailout ahead of a meeting next Thursday. While the European Central Bank recently announced another round of bond purchases aimed at easing the borrowing costs of countries like Spain, according to The Financial Times, the program won't be triggered until governments request help from the European Stability Mechanism, and agree to economic reforms, something Spain's been reluctant to do.

As a barometer of the continent's broader economy, moreover, the global financial information services company, Markit, released its monthly composite index of economic activity for the 17-member bloc. The data revealed that the eurozone is currently experiencing the "steepest contraction since June 2009." Among other things, Markit's composite index, which measures activity in both the manufacturing and services sectors, fell from a reading of 46.3 in August down to 45.9 in September; anything below 50 indicates contraction.

Not to be outdone, Asia's two largest economies provided an additional source of consternation. International trade data released today by Japan revealed that the country's exports had slipped for the third consecutive month. The resulting deficit was among the widest since the Fukushima crisis in March of 2011, which prompted Japan's leaders to shutter its nuclear power plants, and increase imports of fossil fuels from abroad. With any luck, the Bank of Japan's decision, announced yesterday, to flood its economy with additional liquidity, will drive down the value of the yen and concomitantly increase exports.

In China, meanwhile, the HSBC purchasing managers' index, which serves as a proxy for industrial activity, inched up to 47.8 in September, from 47.6 in August. Yet, like Markit's eurozone composite index, because it was below 50, the reading is nevertheless indicative of contraction.

Finally, here at home, investors were privy to downbeat news on both the jobs and manufacturing fronts. With respect to the former, according to data from the Labor Department, initial jobless claims fell by 3,000 to a seasonally-adjusted rate of 382,000 last week. However, claims for the preceding week were revised up, and the four-week moving average of claims increased to its highest level since the end of June. On the manufacturing front, in turn, as I discussed this afternoon, a survey published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia shows that domestic manufacturing conditions, while marginally better than last month, continue to contract.

You probably see now why I compared the Dow's performance to that of the A-Team.

The day's best and worst performers
Leading the Dow up were Kraft Foods (Nasdaq: KFT  ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , up 1.9% and 2.3%, respectively. The former is enjoying its last days as a Dow component, soon to be replaced on the index  by United Health. The positive performance is seemingly in anticipation of its impending split into two companies on October 1. On the other hand, Microsoft is seeing a lift from its decision to up its quarterly dividend payout.

Heading lower for the day were Alcoa (NYSE: AA  ) and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) , down 2.3% and 1.9%, respectively. While the aluminum producer is feeling the effects of the aforementioned slump in manufacturing activity, HP's performance could be tied to any number of things, given the ongoing existential struggle of the personal computer industry.

Given the threats on the horizon, investors would be wise to keep their eyes on the best and most stable companies that the markets have to offer. Three such companies are identified in a free report recently published by our top analysts. To download this report while it's still available, simply click here now.

Fool contributor John Maxfield does not have a financial stake in any of the companies mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic covered call position in Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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