The Department of Commerce released data on the housing starts and permits requested in February this morning, and all signs pointed toward a strengthening housing market. Permits rose 4.6% in February, while housing start rose 0.8% above January's figure. With both starts and permits increasing, it would seem the housing market is not only strong, but improving at a healthy clip.

Those positive housing numbers helped the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) move higher this morning, but investor sentiment turned negative just before midday, and as of 1:05 p.m. EDT the index is down 44 points, or 0.31%. Of the Dow's 30 components, 18 are currently trading down.

Today's Dow downers
As the issues in Cyprus remain unresolved, the financial industry is rather mixed today. Shares of Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) are higher by 1.1%, while Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) are lower by 1.3%, 2.2%, and 1%, respectively. The problems in Europe and the peril of the region's banking industry are certainly dampening investor confidence today. Widespread bank runs and failing EU financial intuitions would likely hurt not only Europe, but global financial markets as well.

Shares of Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) are down 0.9% after a competitor announced a new product today. Polycom, the maker of audio and video conferencing equipment, will now offer a software extension to its current products that will help seamlessly connect all of its devices. Polycom is moving more toward a cloud-based system, which will allow users more freedom and accessibility in the future.

The video-conferencing market is dominated by Cisco, but Polycom believes its new offerings will allow the company to maintain, if not grow, its market share in the years to come.

U.S. aluminum giant Alcoa (NYSE:AA) is trading lower by 1.2% today after a European competitor's stock rating was cut. Norsk Hydro ASA was downgraded by Nordea Bank AB because of a subdued recovery in aluminum prices. Additionally, Hydro recently said it sees world aluminum demand, excluding China, growing only 3% to 4%, while Alcoa's management claimed growth would hit 7% this year.