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The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES: ^DJI ) this morning followed through on their gain from Tuesday, climbing 18 points as of 11 a.m. EDT. Favorable economic news on durable goods orders, which rose 2.2% in February, showed that the U.S. economy appears to be on solid footing, and internationally minded investors are starting to look at possible stimulus moves from China and the European Central Bank as potentially driving global stocks higher. Among Dow stocks, pharma giants Merck (NYSE: MRK ) and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) led the Dow higher, even as Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) posted the biggest decline as of midmorning.
Merck climbed 2% after reports that the drugmaker will join GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK ) in choosing to stop helping low-income Obamacare patients pay for their drugs. The move highlights the sensitivity that Obamacare has raised on the health-care front, as Merck has argued that by some readings such moves could constitute impermissible kickbacks under the federal law. According to Bloomberg, Pfizer hasn't yet said what it plans to do on the issue.
Pfizer 1.3% boost came after it reported positive results in its phase 3B trial of its genotropin drug candidate. The drug is designed to help those who were born small for their gestational age catch up in height by age 2. By showing a statistically significant gain in height, Pfizer is hopeful that the growth hormone could be approved for those suffering from conditions in which use of the drug would be warranted.
Yet both Merck and Pfizer are arguably also benefiting from investor uncertainty about the biotech sector. As high-growth biotech stocks have soared over the past year, Merck and Pfizer have largely been left behind. But with lucrative dividends and growth prospects of their own stemming from demographic trends and other favorable developments, both of the Big Pharma companies look attractive. Moreover, with moves such as Merck's attempt to sell off its over-the-counter health products unit, shareholders could be rewarded for their patience.
Finally, Microsoft fell 1.3%. With technical support for the company's aging Windows XP product ending, Microsoft hopes to encourage users to upgrade to more recent operating systems. Yet for now, the company is getting bad publicity from warnings that security threats on machines running XP could rise dramatically. Microsoft will have to work hard to make sure that consumers don't perceive that they're being forced to upgrade against their will, or else removing support could backfire for the company.
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