It's been a while since we've had a day where the economic data reflected the underlying move in the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC), but today was one such day.
Perhaps the biggest boost to the markets today was the drop of 9,000 in weekly initial jobless claims to a seasonally adjusted rate of 346,000. Although the weekly jobless claims figure is prone to weekly fluctuations, it's currently at a level that would signify a slow, but steady, drop in the unemployment rate. Also, pending home sales hit a six-year high thanks to historically low lending rates and inventory scarcity. However, this is a measure that looks back in time, and with lending rates rising rapidly, we could be in for quite a shock at this time next month.
By the end of the day, the broad-based S&P 500 ended higher by 9.94 points (0.62%) to close at 1,613.20, its third-straight day of big gains.
The big gainer today was cable operator Cablevision (NYSE: CVC), which gained 5.6% on renewed rumors that Charter Communications could make a bid for the company. The report fueling the fire came from Bloomberg News, which insinuated that Charter could be in talks to acquire Time Warner Cable, the No. 3 cable operator, or the No. 4 cable operator, Cablevision. Following Gannett's deal to buy Belo, which was announced two weeks ago, speculation throughout the cable space has been running rampant. For now, do your best to ignore the white noise about any potential Charter acquisitions and, instead, focus on Cablevision's upcoming quarterly report to determine your next course of action.
Processed and packaged food provider ConAgra Foods (NYSE:CAG) advanced 5.1% after topping Wall Street's EPS estimates in the fourth quarter by $0.01. ConAgra delivered encouraging cost-saving results from its acquisition of Ralcorp, and utilized cost-cutting measures on its food in an attempt to get cash-strapped consumers to purchase its products. Even though the company showed 3% organic volume growth in the consumer-foods segment, I'm a bit skeptical. While I definitely love tight cost controls, the possibility of rising food inflation, coupled with the need to cut prices, doesn't bode well for margins over the long run. I'd suggest treading cautiously after today's pop.
Finally, struggling retailer J.C. Penney (OTC:JCPN.Q) jumped 5.2% following positive comments made by Sterne, Agee & Leach analyst, Charles Grom. According to Grom, Penney's is beginning to see its first signs of a turnaround with new CEO Mike Ullman reinstituting Penney's old sales strategies that made it popular among cost-conscious consumers. As for me, I'm not nearly as optimistic. Penney's strategy to bring back Ullman, the CEO who partially led Penney's into the situation it's in now, seems like a short-term fix. The long-term outlook on Penney's is still very much in question, with losses mounting, and cash dwindling.