With just six business days until Christmas, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) caught another case of the fiscal cliff blues, its first in a while, falling 74 points, or 0.6%. House Speaker John Boehner again accused President Obama of "slow-walking" toward the cliff, and wanting to "punish small businesses," on a day when the market may still be absorbing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's foreboding words yesterday about a continuing slow recovery. Press Secretary Jay Carney responded by saying that Republicans had been intransigent on raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%. The President and Speaker Boehner had scheduled a meeting tonight in the White House, which will hopefully yield better results than we've seen.
Today's economic reports painted a picture of a mildly improving economy, as initial jobless claims surprisingly fell to 343,000, its second-lowest weekly total since 2008. That figure was nearly 10% below analyst estimates of 375,000. Retail sales, meanwhile, inched up by 0.3%, essentially even with market expectations after a slight dip in October, and the Producer Price Index fell by nearly 1%, which could encourage further consumption.
Nearly every Dow component was down, with drug-maker Merck (NYSE:MRK) falling the furthest, with a drop of 2%, after CEO Kenneth Frazier said that price controls in Medicare could deter drug innovation. Democrats have proposed using the bargaining power of the Medicare block to lower drug prices as one of the solution's to reducing the nation's bloated budget. Frazier's claims seem particularly suspect considering that prices for branded drugs increased by 13.3% last year, far outpacing the overall inflation rate, and that the pharmaceutical industry consistently has one of the highest profit margins in the business world. For example, Merck's profit margin over the last four quarters is 14%. The stock also went ex-dividend today, which should account for about half of the drop.
Fellow health-care component UnitedHealth (NYSE:UNH) also dropped 1.6%, as insurance companies begin to form state exchanges as mandated by the Affordable Care Act. The market may fear a drop in Medicare payouts as a result of the fiscal cliff, and rival Aetna (NYSE:AET) provided a 2013 outlook that was below estimates. Aetna's CEO also said the new health-care law could double some premiums.
Finally, rounding out the losers' lounge was Boeing (NYSE:BA), which fell 1.5%, after another problem was reported with one of its 787 Dreamliner jets, this time by Qatar Airways. The plane has been grounded since Dec. 9, and Qatar Airways said it would demand compensation from the airplane maker as a result. The issue was apparently the same one that forced a United 787 Dreamliner to make an emergency landing earlier this month.
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