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.

As has been the case for multiple Mondays in a row now, the wait for midweek earnings reports compounded with relatively light economic data has tended to keep the broad-based S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) in a fairly tight trading range -- although today it resulted in modest gains.

The only piece of reasonably important economic news that made its way onto investors' plates this morning was factory order data for August and September. If you recall, the government shutdown for the first 16 days of October halted the dissemination of practically all economic data, including factory order results for the previous month. We discovered that factory orders fell by just 0.1% for August while they grew by 1.7% in September. Both figures were a tad bit lower than Wall Street had forecast, but it's a definite improvement from the 2.8% decline noted in July. These results, coupled with improved manufacturing readings, could signal a still healthy economic expansion.

By day's end the S&P 500 rose by 6.29 points (0.36%) to close at 1,767.93, the index's second-straight day of gains.

You can certainly tell it's earnings season by the company leading all other S&P 500 components higher today: Vulcan Materials (NYSE: VMC  ) . The construction aggregate and concrete supplier isn't a big mover typically, but it relied on a big earnings beat in the third quarter to send shares higher by 7.7%. For the quarter, Vulcan reported a 12% increase in revenue to $813.6 million, primarily because of a 17% increase in ready-mix concrete volume, as adjusted profits nearly tripled to $0.32 per share from $0.11 in the year prior. By comparison, Wall Street expected Vulcan to deliver earnings per share of just $0.26 on revenue of $782 million. While things are certainly looking up for the gravel and concrete maker, I would urge caution as the potential for rising lending rates in the U.S. has the ability to quickly stamp out this rally.

Continuing today's theme of surprise companies atop the S&P 500, aluminum giant Alcoa (NYSE: AA  ) added 7% despite a lack of company-specific news. As a reminder, Alcoa is set to go ex-dividend later this week, paying out $0.03 per share to shareholders of record by Nov. 25. Although the anticipation of this dividend could be playing a small part in today's move higher, investors just seem pleased with Alcoa's cost-cutting efforts and its recent aircraft parts joint venture with VSMPO-AVISMA which should expand its product sales opportunities and help lower costs. I continue to personally be a fan of Alcoa here and would suggest any more risk-willing investors dig a bit deeper into this long-term growth opportunity.

Finally, online travel services company TripAdvisor (NASDAQ: TRIP  ) followed Alcoa's lead and jumped 5.8% despite a lack of company-specific news. The reasoning behind the bullishness in TripAdvisor probably has a lot to do with the strength witnessed in travel booking websites Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE  ) and priceline.com. Expedia, for example, last week reported market-topping third-quarter results in which it delivered revenue growth of 17% on hotel booking growth of 20%. Hotels offer travel websites their beefiest margins, so it speaks volumes to the ongoing strength in the online travel service sector. The thought process here is that if Expedia and Priceline are having no trouble growing their business domestically and overseas, then TripAdvisor's top and bottom lines should follow in unison.

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