The market's crawling back up toward its record highs today, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI ) is just above breakeven, having picked up four points as of 2:25 p.m. EDT. Stocks are fairly evenly split between risers and fallers, but not a single member of the Dow his moved more than 1% today. Let's get caught up on what you need to know.
Sales rise, but stocks won't budge
The retail sector kicked off the day when the Department of Commerce reported that retail sales climbed 1.1% last month. As gas prices increase and the payroll tax hike hits consumers' budgets, an uptick in retail despite those hurdles is a testament to the strength of the recovering economy. The number is slightly skewed due to the higher gas prices -- spending at gas stations alone jumped 5% -- but even without that number, retail spending still rose 0.6%.
Retail stocks on the Dow didn't so much as lift a finger in response, however. Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) has picked up just 0.2% on the day, while Home Depot has gained a few cents. The positive retail numbers come as Wal-Mart struggles with sales; one vice president at the company said halfway through February that month's early sales were the worst he had seen in his seven years at the company. The dismal results haven't shaken Wal-Mart's stock, which has picked up more than 6% since the start of the year, but it's a worrying indicator that tightened consumer wallets are dragging on the big retailer's top line.
Today's biggest losers come from the industrial sector. Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) and Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) haven't lost much today, but compared to the rest of the slow-moving Dow, their respective losses of 0.4% and 1% rank among the bottom of the index. Neither stock has joined in the market's bull run to start the year: Even as the Dow has hit record highs, Caterpillar and Alcoa have both seen shares fall more than 4% to start 2013.
China's infrastructure slowdown and attempts to curb its bubbling housing market won't help them pick up steam, and the industrial sector as a whole could be in for a bumpy road as the U.S. and other advanced economies continue to push toward healthier growth. Still, now could be a great time to buy on the dip: Fellow Fool Richard Saintvilus recently outlined how Alcoa's strong management and Chinese investments should position the company to succeed when aluminum prices rise.
And today's winner? With gains of only 0.7%, IBM (NYSE: IBM ) is leading the sleepy Dow higher. The tech giant is getting its feet wet in the health care sector by developing data-analysis technology to study traumatic brain injuries. It's a smart move for IBM, as the health care sector's rise is being fueled by the long-term aging and obesity trends in the U.S., which should keep the sector a profitable one for companies and investors for a long time.
Is the slowdown set to end?
Materials industries are traditionally known for their high barriers to entry, and the aluminum industry is no exception. Representing 14.7% of 2011 global production in this highly consolidated industry, Alcoa is in prime position to take advantage of growth that some expect will lead to total industry revenue approaching $160 billion by 2017. Based on this prospective and several other company-specific factors, Alcoa is certainly worth a closer look. For a Foolish investment perspective on this global giant, simply click here to get started.