ExxonMobil's Fall Takes Down the Dow

Stocks have slowed down after yesterday's rally and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) has given back some of those great gains it picked up on Tuesday. As of 2:30 p.m. EST, the Dow was down more than 38 points, with most member stocks falling after disappointing private-sector hiring data dampened investor optimism. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) is the Dow's clear-cut loser today by shedding 2.9%. Let's catch up on what you need to know.

Jobs gains remain elusive
Automatic Data Processing released its February private-sector payroll report today, and the statistics don't add any silver lining to what has been a disappointing winter season for the U.S. economy. According to ADP's report, the private sector added 139,000 total nonfarm jobs in February, disappointing economists heading into the government's own jobs report slated for release on Friday. The 139,000-job gain is far less than the 205,000 private-sector positions added in February 2013, although it's a step up from January's poor result, lending credence to the suspicions that this year's exceptionally poor weather has held back the economy's gains.

Around the Dow, Exxon tumbled after the company projected it would spend 6.4% less on capital efforts this year despite expecting to start up production at 10 new projects in 2014, a record for the company. Exxon predicts capital spending to come in at $39.8 billion this year, with annual average spending of $37 billion between 2015 and 2017.

Investors haven't been too pleased with Exxon's progress as of late. The stock has gained only roughly 8% over the past year, trailing much of the Dow's gains over that time. The company's most recent earnings report in late January failed to build up any optimism; Exxon missed on analyst expectations for its bottom line as earnings per share slumped by 14% year over year. Those 10 projects due to begin his year serve as the beginning of Exxon's plan to kick off new projects in natural gas and oil production in order to drive growth. However, for cautious investors, the Big Oil company will have to perform before this stock sees better days.

Elsewhere on the Dow, Big Pharma's Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) has had a tough day despite revealing upbeat new data. The health care stock has shed around 0.3% despite the company's developmental dust mite allergy drug MK-8237 hitting all the right notes in a recent phase 2b clinical trial. This isn't Merck's strongest drug in its pipeline by far, but it's nonetheless a victory for investors who have struggled with the company's high research and development spending and failure to produce many strong market contenders. While all eyes turn toward Merck's developmental cancer therapy MK-3475, a potential blockbuster, every strong clinical study performance helps.

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