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The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI ) may not be up by much today -- but it's up. And for that, we have China to thank. As of 2:45 p.m. EST, the blue-chip index has gained 17 points, or 0.13%.
How China saved the day
Over the last two years, investors and analysts have grown increasingly concerned that China's economy was on the verge of a hard landing. Like the U.S., China was a complicit victim in a massive real-estate bubble from which it's still recovering, albeit with considerable assistance from the government.
For seven consecutive quarters, China's nevertheless-impressive growth rate declined, going from an extended period of double-digit gains down to 7.4% growth in the third quarter of last year.
Investors learned today that the slide appears to have stopped, at least for the time being. According to official statistics from the Chinese government, output in the fourth quarter rose by 7.9% compared to the same three-month period of 2011. For the year, the growth rate came in at 7.8%. "Overall the economy has been stabilizing," said the country's National Bureau of Statistics.
The one concern surprisingly identified by Ma Jiantang, head of the bureau, involved inequality. Ma noted that the country's Gini coefficient -- a measure of wealth inequality -- was 0.47 last year. While this was roughly equal to that of the U.S. -- which had a coefficient of 0.48, according to The Wall Street Journal -- other statisticians have pegged China's figure at 0.61, placing it among the ranks of African and South American countries.
Struggling U.S. stocks
The news couldn't have come at a better time for many U.S. stocks. After the bell yesterday, chip maker Intel (NASDAQ: INTC ) reported earnings for the fourth quarter. Profit at the Silicon Valley company fell a staggering 27% on a year-over-year basis for the three months ended Dec. 31.
In an effort to paint the results in the best light, outgoing CEO Paul Otellini noted, "The fourth quarter played out largely as expected as we continued to execute through a challenging environment," the latter referring to the well-known decline in personal-computer demand, Intel's bread and butter.
Beyond Intel, the market continues to digest disappointing earnings at some of the nation's largest financial firms. Both American Express (NYSE: AXP ) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) are down considerably today following their earnings releases.
Quarterly profit at American Express was off by 47% compared with the same time period in 2011 thanks to higher loan-loss provisions and a hefty writedown associated with a recently announced restructuring initiative. At the end of last week, the credit card company said it plans to eliminate 5,400 jobs, mostly in its travel division.
Bank of America's profit similarly suffered after it recognized roughly $4 billion in expenses stemming from two massive legal settlements that it entered into at the beginning of this year. The first settlement with Fannie Mae concerned mortgage underwriting and set the bank back by $2.7 billion. The second, with banking regulators, related to mortgage-servicing misdeeds and cost Bank of America $1.1 billion.
On the positive side, alternatively, shares of General Electric (NYSE: GE ) are up more than 3% in afternoon trading. The industrial conglomerate reported earnings this morning for the fourth quarter that, unlike those of the above-mentioned companies, actually grew. Profit at the company increased by 7.5% in the final three months of last year. Demand from emerging economies like China more than offset the "uncertain" business environment in the developed world.
According to CEO Jeff Immelt: "The outlook for developed markets remains uncertain, but we are seeing growth in China and the resource rich countries. With our largest backlog in history and a substantial amount of cash generated by our businesses in the fourth quarter, we have great momentum going into 2013."
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