If you're a lover of rallies, then you were practically in heaven today, as the broad-based S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) hit a five-year intraday high on the back of strong economic data and a flurry of better-than-expected earnings reports.
In terms of data, jobless claims fell 37,000 to a seasonally adjusted 335,000 – its lowest reading in five years. This leads to hope that jobs are indeed being created, and the labor market may not be as bad off as pessimists have made it appear to be. Furthermore, housing starts climbed to their highest level since Jun. 2008, with an annual unit rate of 954,000, signaling that the housing recovery is actually picking up steam.
On the earnings front, no company had more to do with vaulting the market higher than online retailer eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY). Its fourth-quarter results highlighted an 18% improvement in revenue, as profits jumped 17%. eBay's forecast wasn't the strongest, considering that it expects margins at its mobile payment business, PayPal, to be flat year over year, but the sheer focus that it's placing on mobile expansion has investors who follow retail and mobile/cloud computing excited about eBay's, and the rest of the sectors', prospects.
On the day, the S&P 500 finished higher by 8.31 points (0.56%), to close at 1,480.94. Yet, even with eBay's solid earnings, there were three stocks within the S&P 500 that vastly outperformed it.
As you might have already suspected, a 12.1% surge in housing starts to a five-year high is great news for homebuilders like PulteGroup (NYSE:PHM), which roared higher by 5.3%. What we're finding is that the homebuilders that were hit the hardest in the recession are those that are roaring back the quickest in terms of share price appreciation. While even I can't deny that the housing sector isn't in as dire straits as it once was, I have to wonder who really wants to pay 18 times next year's earnings for a company like Pulte that hasn't turned an annual profit since 2006. Certainly not me.
Semiconductor equipment manufacturer KLA-Tencor (NASDAQ:KLAC) was off to the races, advancing 7% on the day, following solid earnings reports from chipmaker Taiwan Semiconductor and semiconductor equipment vendor ASML Holdings, as well as positive comments from an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. Both TSM and ASML met expectations and provided the spark that we may be at the trough of the most recent semiconductor cycle. Stifel analyst Patrick Ho opined that he expects orders to pick up in the second half of 2013 for much of the sector, and cited KLA-Tencor as one of his favorite names in the sector. While I personally prefer Applied Materials, I completely agree with Mr. Ho's analysis and outlook on the semiconductor equipment sector as a whole.
Finally, Fifth Third Bancorp (NASDAQ:FITB) bucked the financial onslaught that Bank of America endured today by reporting a 30% jump in fourth-quarter earnings, and seeing its stock rise by nearly 5%. More important than its rapid rise in earnings was the company's outlook on future charge-offs, and its capital position. CFO Dan Poston, in an interview with Business Courier, noted that his bank has $1.5 billion in deployable cash, and expects net charge-offs to shrink by approximately $200 million this year from the $470 million reported in 2012. Its tier-1 common equity to assets ratio of 9.5% may not suggest Fifth Third is extremely well-capitalized, but Posten's comments would suggest otherwise, and could lead to further upside in the stock.
Fool contributor Sean Williams owns shares of Bank of America, but has no material interest in any other companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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