Today investors learned that the U.S. economy was absolutely abysmal in the first quarter of 2014. Far exceeding even the most bearish estimates, gross domestic product actually contracted by 2.9% in the January-March period, the steepest setback since the depths of the recession in 2009. You'd think that the stock market would enter freefall mode on that revelation, but instead it was only a handful of stocks -- Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO), Phillips 66 (NYSE:PSX), and Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated (NASDAQ:VRTX) -- that were freefalling. The S&P 500 Index (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) actually managed to add 9 points, or 0.5%, to end at 1,959.
Valero Energy shed 8.3%, finishing as the worst performer in the 500-stock index Wednesday, as sudden, sweeping structural reforms that change 40-year-old rules on exporting oil hit shares of U.S. refiners. According to a Wall Street Journal report late yesterday, the Commerce Department is allowing several U.S. oil companies to export unrefined condensate oil overseas. That sort of exporting hasn't been allowed since the '70s, giving U.S. refiners a monopoly on the refinery business. Valero is strictly a refining and marketing company, so the decision clearly threatens its business.
Thankfully for Phillips 66 investors, this company is more diversified, engaging in the transport of oil and natural gas, producing chemicals, and hawking specialty products like solvents and waxes. That said, since its foundation nearly 140 years ago, Phillips 66 has evolved around its refinery business, so the news sent shares down 4.2% Wednesday. Its transportation business, for instance, often hauls gas that it has just refined to the end-customers. With oil producers now permitted to ship unrefined oil abroad without paying for any distillation process, Phillips 66 is still in a tough spot.
Lastly, shares of Vertex Pharmaceuticals fell 3.9% today. If you're a Vertex shareholder, odds are today's little stumble doesn't even register as a concern on the radar. That's because the stock soared a phenomenal 40% yesterday after data for its "TRAFFIC" and "TRANSPORT" trials met the company's goals. Vertex is trying to use a combination of its cystic fibrosis drug, Kalydeco, and another drug, lumacaftor, to gain approval from regulators to market the combo as a treatment that improves lung function in certain cystic fibrosis patients. The newest data make it look like such an approval is very likely to occur in the future.
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