We all knew it couldn't last forever. Following 10 consecutive days in which the market closed higher -- the longest streak since the 1990s -- the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI ) appears positioned to finish lower for the first time this month. With roughly an hour left in the trading session, the blue-chip index is down 51 points, or 0.35%.
There was a slew of economic releases on the macroeconomic front today. First, consumer confidence came in worse than expected. The closely watched Thompson Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment fell to 71.8, down from 77.6 in February. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had expected a reading of 78. According to a market strategist quoted by The Wall Street Journal: "The drop in March is certainly out of step with some of the other things that we've been seeing. But [Thursday's] jobless claims number was still low and everything else is doing OK, so I'm not freaking out just yet."
On a slightly more upbeat note, a report by the New York Federal Reserve estimated that growth in the eponymous region's manufacturing sector stayed positive for a second month in a row. Its Empire State manufacturing index came in at 9.2 for the month of March. This was slightly worse than the preceding month, but, as an economist told MarketWatch.com, the reading suggests that the level of manufacturing activity "does seem to be getting better" -- though he went on to note that "it still hasn't got to a point where we would call it strong, firm, or even normal."
Finally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its estimate of inflation for the month of February. The data showed that consumer prices rose by 0.7% last month, equating to the fastest increase since 2009. The primary impetus was energy prices, which climbed by 9% over a one-month time period. On a year-over-year basis, meanwhile, overall inflation came in at 2%. For those worried that this news will encourage the Federal Reserve to ease off the monetary gas pedal, any such concerns are premature, as the central bank has promised to keep interest rates low until annualized inflation exceeds 2.5% or the unemployment rate falls below 6.5%.
In terms of individual stocks, the worst-performing component on the Dow today is far and away JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , the nation's largest bank by assets. After the market closed yesterday, the Federal Reserve released the results of the 2013 Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review, or CCAR, the purpose of which is to determine which of the nation's biggest banks will be allowed to increase the amount of capital they can return to shareholders this year.
While JPMorgan's proposed dividend increase was not denied, the Fed is nevertheless requiring the bank, along with Goldman Sachs, to resubmit an updated version at the end of the third quarter in order to "address weaknesses in their capital planning processes." CEO Jamie Dimon responded by saying that "JPMorgan Chase is fully committed to meeting all of the Fed's requirements." To read more about how each of these banks performed in the Fed's CCAR, click here for JPMorgan and here for Goldman Sachs.
On the other end of the spectrum today is the blue-chip index's other traditional banking component, Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , which is seeing its shares rise 4.4% to a new 52-week high. The Fed didn't express any reservations about B of A's plan to buyback $5 billion in common stock and $5.5 billion in preferred shares. Analysts and investors, in turn, are interpreting the lack of protest as a long-overdue and tangible sign of improvement in the nation's largest lender. To read more about this, click here.
Finally, shares of Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) are defying the broader market today, up by more than 2% in afternoon trading. While the iPhone maker has recently come under fire by the likes of Samsung, yesterday's unveiling of the latter's newest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S4, seemingly failed to impress analysts. On the one hand, the device sports a bigger display and unconventional features such as gesture controls, said Reuters. But on the other, while these additions are good steps in the right direction, "they can be seen as gimmicks rather than game changers," a telecom analyst told the international news agency. For what it's worth, as our own Apple expert Evan Niu pointed out, it's almost universally held at The Motley Fool that shares of Apple are trading far too inexpensively at this point.
There's no doubt that Apple is at the center of technology's largest revolution ever and that longtime shareholders have been handsomely rewarded. However, there is a debate raging as to whether Apple remains a buy. The Motley Fool's senior technology analyst and managing bureau chief, Eric Bleeker, is prepared to fill you in on reasons both to buy and to sell Apple, as well as what opportunities remain for the company (and your portfolio) going forward. To get instant access to his latest thoughts on Apple, simply click here now.