Feb. 26 - Summary: Strength in retail was not strong enough to lift the market to new highs for a second day; New home sales surprisingly surge in January. Conway G. Gittens reports.
U.S. stocks were stuck in neutral with investors still not ready to push the S&P 500 to a record. Gains were tiny, but enough to send the Nasdaq to a fresh 14-year high. Surprise! Surprise! New homes sold like hot cakes in January, hitting a 5-1/2-year high, at the seasonally adjusted annual rate of 468,000. Most deals closed in the Northeast and the South, the two regions that took the hardest hit from unusually cold winter weather blamed for holding back most of the U.S. economy. The upbeat number comes sign, after sign of a housing slowdown following a run-up in mortgage rates and a pinch in properties on the market. Another big day for retail: After the bell, J.C. Penney says same-store sale will improve this year. Last quarter the struggling retailer posted an adjusted loss that was not as big as feared. The massive data breach that struck Target just before Christmas helped chop its quarterly profit nearly in half. The company says it can't put a tab on possible costs related to the intrusion and warned that could hurt future profits. But shares of Target, one of the biggest net gainers at the New York Stock Exchange on relief the results weren't much worse. Strong sales growth at Lowe's showed that the No. 2 U.S. home improvement retailer was getting closer to market leader Home Depot. But the holiday quarter did not go as well as expected for TJX. The parent of TJMaxx also warning of lower than anticipated full-year results. Rounding up other earnings: Dollar Tree rallied roughly 5 percent thanks to an uptick in same store sales... Abercrombie and Fitch surged 11 percent after a tumble in sales was not as dire as feared... Chesapeake Energy lost close to 5 percent after swinging to a quarterly loss... and First Solar slumped 9 percent on a drop in net income. European stocks dipped, with shares in luxury goods makers under pressure due to large exposure to emerging markets.