Feb. 20 - Summary: Hewlett-Packard's revenue fall less than expected, U.S. manufacturing may be strongest in years, S&P 500 nears record high, Wal-Mart struggles amid cuts in food stamps. Carmen Roberts reports.
TV AND WEB RESTRICTIONS~**NONE** Manufacturing punches in strong for February, sending the S&P 500 near a record. A preliminary reading shows U.S. factory activity accelerated this month at its fastest pace in nearly four years. That outshines the string of weaker-than-expected earnings reports from companies including Wal-Mart. The world's largest retailer stumbles on higher taxes, tougher credit, stiff holiday shopping competition, and a Congressional cut in the food stamp program. Ken Perkins of Morningstar: SOUNDBITE: KEN PERKINS, ASSOCIATE EQUITY ANALYST, MORNINGSTAR (ENGLISH) SAYING: "You can clearly see company targets a customer base that is generally a lower-income customer than some of its other competitors. A quite substantial cut to the food stamp program is a challenge. The maximum allotment has been cut by at least five percent in November. And I think the impact of those cuts is bigger than Wal-Mart had expected at a time when the consumer is already constrained." Wal-Mart shares slid after saying sales fell for a fourth straight quarter and full-year profit will be less than analysts expected. Freezing temperatures hurt manufacturing in the mid-Atlantic region, even as overall U.S. factory output looks stronger. The labor market also looks a bit better. The number of Americans filing for first time unemployment benefits fell last week. Hewlett-Packard's revenue falls less than expected. HP said after the close that first quarter revenue fell one percent from a year ago to $28.2 billion as it struggles with rapidly falling demand for PCs. WhatsApp is what's up with Facebook shares one-day after buying the mobile-messaging startup for $19 billion. Facebook helped drive U.S. stocks higher as the social network and Tesla Motors reached record highs. Optimism over manufacturing set a positive tone for Wall Street. In Europe, investors are concerned as a truce in Ukraine falls apart and violence erupts into the bloodiest day since Soviet times. As for the markets, shares in Germany, France and the U.K. ended little changed.