Jan. 9 - Summary: Wall Street was little changed as investors put retailers on the discount rack; Alcoa beat sales forecast but net earnings miss; JPMorgan Chase plans pre-paid card exit; Jobless numbers point to improving trends. Conway G. Gittens reports.
A split decision and a bit of indecision on Wall Street as stocks end mixed, but stray little from opening levels. The Dow slipped lower, hurt by an ExxonMobil downgrade, the S&P 500 squeezed out a gain despite weak retailers. The Nasdaq crept lower. More on retail, but first Alcoa reporting results after the close. The aluminum giant topped revenue estimates but profits excluding special items were not up to analysts' forecasts. Family Dollar reported a weaker quarterly profit as it discounted more than it had planned to in order to win over holiday shoppers, pretty much echoing a problem hitting many shopkeepers. Liz Dunn follows the retail group for Macquarie Research. SOUNDBITE: LIZ DUNN, SENIOR CONSUMER AND RETAIL ANALYST, MACQUARIE (ENGLISH) SAYING: "Obviously 2013 was a difficult year. We still see the fourth quarter reports for many of these companies, I expect them to be largely disappointing, but as I look at the consumer, I think the consumer is in decent shape. We have jobs moving in the right direction, certainly household net worth has made a lot of progress. The value of the home is going up. The value of, you know, investment holdings is going up. I think that will have a trickle down effect to the consumer actually feeling better and spending more on retail." But not all the news from retail was worrisome. Costco said December sales at stores opened more than a year were above forecasts. Macy's late-Wednesday announced strong holiday sales. Shares of the department store touched a lifetime high during the session. Outside of retail: JPMorgan Chase is mulling a sale or at least a wind down of a specific part of its prepaid cards business. These debit cards are issued on behalf of corporate payrolls, along with government tax refunds and benefits. Last month JPMorgan warned nearly half a million card holders that their personal data may have been accessed by computer hackers in July. On the economic front: The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week. A separate survey shows planned corporate layoffs dropped in December to a more than 13-year low, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. European shares led lower by France after an official warned that country's debt was at the "danger zone."