Sometimes investors just need the simple reminder that stocks can't go up every single day no matter how good recent economic data has been -- and today was that day. The broad-based S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) was denied its eighth consecutive up day, falling 3.74 points (-0.24%) to finish at 1,552.48, as a void of economic data was available to fuel further upside. Don't expect the lull to last, however, with U.S. retail sales for the month of February due out tomorrow.
Despite a meandering S&P 500, there were still three companies that stood out from the crowd.
One of today's biggest winners was troubled retail chain J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP), which rallied higher by 3.9% on the day after rumors swirled this morning that CEO Ron Johnson may resign. Penney's was quick to rebuke those rumors and noted that Johnson has no intention of quitting and that the rumor was false. Ironically, it was the possibility of Johnson quitting that shot the share price higher, showing the apparent vitriol shareholders have toward Johnson's initiatives at the moment. My colleagues and I came to the unanimous conclusion to avoid Penney's last week, and I'd suggest avoiding the company in its entirety until we see a marked improvement in its bottom line.
Hard-disk drive makers Seagate Technology (NASDAQ:STX) and, to a lesser extent, Western Digital (NASDAQ:WDC) rallied strongly today, tacking on 4.8% and 4.1%, respectively. Seagate pulled ahead of its rival after announcing that it had shipped its two billionth hard-disk drive since it began making them 33 years ago. Hard-disk drive makers have been largely depressed in recent years as their products have come under margin and commoditization pressure. In addition, slumping PC sales have reduced HDD demand. However, the emergence of cloud computing could create a double-dip opportunity for both Seagate and Western Digital to supply storage components for both the end user and data center servers. This is a sector to watch closely.
Finally, Dow component Merck (NYSE:MRK) jumped 3.2% after the Data Safety Monitoring Board concluded that it should continue with its study of cholesterol-lowering drug Vytorin. Begun in 2005, Merck has been studying the long-term effects of Vytorin relative to Zocor (another Merck drug that went off patent years ago) and plans to release the full data on this study by Sept. 2014. Merck's hope is that Vytorin will show a significant benefit over Zocor and bring plenty of sales back to the company. Today's news is a definite step in the right direction, although caution should be exercised as we're still 18 months away from the completion of the IMPROVE-IT trial.