Today's 3 Best Stocks in the S&P 500

Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over market movements, we do like to keep an eye on big changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

It was another day of relatively little economic data with the government still shut down, but at least President Obama did his part to invigorate long-term investors and the broad-based S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) by nominating Janet Yellen as the next Federal Reserve chairperson to succeed Ben Bernanke when his term expires.

Yellen has often been viewed as the leading candidate to succeed Bernanke, so this really wasn't a shock so much as a calming effort on the markets, which have been rocked by the thought of a protracted government shutdown and potential debt default in the coming week. It will now come down to an approval from Congress, which, as of lately, is easier said than done.

Also temporarily lighting a little fire under the market was a slight boost in the Mortgage Brokers Association's weekly loan origination figures, which rose by 1.3%. Lending rates have been falling, which bodes well for refinancing and mortgage loan origination activity. Though markedly higher than May's 3.4% low for the 30-year mortgage, interest rates are still historically low and could portend further growth from the housing sector.

Despite these two positive news stories, the S&P 500 had a hard time escaping the inevitability of Congress' recent shortcomings and afforded the index a gain of just 0.95 points (0.06%) to close at 1,656.40 -- just the indexes fourth gain in the past 15 sessions.

Bucking the relatively unchanged S&P 500 and leading all S&P 500 stocks higher was PC maker and former Dow Jones Industrial Average component Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) . HP tacked on a gain of 8.9% after CEO Meg Whitman updated the company's fiscal 2014 guidance by noting that its latest round of layoffs is over and that it sees revenue declines stabilizing. Furthermore, with expenses reduced from the layoffs and revenue expected to stabilize, Whitman guided full-year EPS to a range of $3.55-$3.75, which, at the midpoint, is slightly higher than the current $3.62 consensus on Wall Street. Whitman also noted that half of HP's cash flow would be returned to shareholders in the form of a dividend or share repurchase program in 2014. HP has definitely been impressive with its ability to cut costs and appears incredibly inexpensive to Wall Street analysts, but I still struggle to see where its growth will come from. Until that becomes clearer, I'm sticking to the sidelines.

Shares of Darden Restaurants (NYSE: DRI  ) , the company behind Red Lobster and Olive Garden, rose 7.1% today after activist hedge fund Barington Capital Group took a sizable position in the company and suggested to management that it split into two separate companies. According to The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, the plan would be for Darden to spin off the Capital Grille and other faster-growth business into one company while keeping the established and slower-growth Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains in the other. The advantage, of course, is that investors would have better earnings and revenue growth visibility and it could therefore unlock shareholder value. It's a bit too early to speculate if anything comes of this, but as of now shareholders seem pretty excited.

Lastly, financial services and insurance provider Hartford Financial Services (NYSE: HIG  ) advanced 4.6% following a report from Reuters that Apollo Global Management (NYSE: APO  ) and J.C. Flowers & Co. may bid for its annuity business unit in Japan and the United States. Hartford stopped selling variable annuities in both countries in March 2012 due to the threat of interest rate fluctuations and stock market losses. Although neither Apollo Global nor J.C. Flowers commented on the rumors, it would clearly be a win for Hartford if a deal were reached and the cash received could set it up for expansion into higher-growth regions and services.

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