Conflicting economic data once again has U.S. stock markets searching for direction. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index climbed to 44 this month from 41 in April, another sign that the housing market is improving. On the flip side, manufacturing production fell 0.4% in April, and industrial output dropped 0.5%, which was lower than the 0.2% drop forecast by economists. Stocks edged lower in early trading before rallying and then settling in for modest gains. As of 3:15 p.m. EDT the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI -0.11%) and the S&P 500 (^GSPC 0.02%) have gained about 0.2% each. 

Alcoa (AA) is down 0.8% as investors fear that weak demand and low aluminum prices will only get worse. Europe piled onto the weak U.S. manufacturing data by announcing a 0.2% decline in France's GDP and just 0.1% growth in Germany in Q1. These should be two of the healthier economies in Europe, so if they're not growing, then Europe as a whole will continue to struggle. Alcoa is dependent on macro growth from the U.S., Europe, and China, so today's numbers should leave investors feeling queasy at best.

Hewlett-Packard (HPQ 1.55%) is the worst-performing stock on the Dow, falling 3.3%. Research firm Gartner is reporting a 20.5% decline in PC sales in Western Europe during the first quarter. Competing research firm IDC said it expects IT spending worldwide to grow just 4.9% this year, down from 5.6% a year ago. Smartphones will drive what little growth there is, and they're not HP's strong suit. This is still a tough stock to bet on, given slowing IT growth and the rapid decline of a PC business that once drove HP's results. 

In the flight from risky stocks, investors have pushed shares of consumer staple Procter & Gamble (PG 0.68%) 1.4% higher to lead the Dow today. At an investor conference yesterday, CFO Jon Moeller hinted that new products could obsolete entire product categories and give the company an advantage over competitors. P&G saw organic sales growth of just 3% in the fiscal third quarter. Management had expected more, and it hopes to change that with a new line of products. For now, investors see the stock's juicy 3.1% dividend yield as a reason to buy in uncertain economic times.