Market Update: Markets Tread Water as Outlook Remains Muddled

Good news from Nortel, Agilent give markets a shot in the arm, but fundamentals have been terrible.
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The major indices were a bit better than unchanged this morning, as the picture remains muddled. Earnings news and analyst calls have supported the market, which still trades tentatively. Some say uncertainty over the outcome of the presidential election is still having an effect, but market fundamentals have been terrible lately.

Lately the

Nasdaq Composite Index was resuming its earlier snap-back bounce. Yesterday, the tech-heavy index sunk to its lowest level in more than a year -- down 151.5 points to 2875.6. Strength in big-cap tech stocks was lately countering weakness in semiconductors and Internet stocks. But breadth is significantly negative, with winners behind losers 13 to 20 on the Nasdaq.

The

Dow Jones Industrial Average was also making its way higher, despite substantial weakness in financials following downgrades by

Merrill Lynch

. The

S&P 500 was lately up 1.79%. Breadth on the

New York Stock Exchange is also negative, with winners behind losers 11 to 14.

Tech stocks were getting a boost partly on good earnings news from communications equipment maker

Nortel Networks

(NT)

and from

Agilent Technologies

,

(A) - Get Report

, which does business in a host of tech sectors, including communications, electronics, life sciences, opticals and semiconductors.

Nortel said

last night it was "very confident" it would meet its operating earnings and revenue targets for the fourth quarter. The company also said it expects growth in its optical, wireless and Internet and e-business products to remain strong. (

TSC

took a closer look at Nortel's guidance in a

separate article.)

This reassurance was much needed after the company hit a new 52-week low of $34.06 last Friday on concerns voiced by

Banc of America Securities

. Banc of America analyst Chris Crespi asserted that Nortel's customers had begun stockpiling optical equipment in the third quarter. And this was only the latest in a spate of recent bad news surrounding the networking sector.

Along with

Sun Microsystems

(SUNW) - Get Report

and

EMC

(EMC)

, Nortel was one of the last holdouts against the Nasdaq's autumn decline. But the believers lost faith pretty quickly when Nortel revealed some weakness in its business in early November.

A separate

TSC

story gives a more detailed account of Agilent's earnings announcement.

But financials are under pressure after

Merrill Lynch

cut its earnings per share targets for asset management companies by an average of 7%.

And

Lucent

(LU)

was a drag. The company said it expected lower fourth-quarter revenues would knock 2 cents off of its earnings per share.

Meanwhile, the elections quagmire continues to throw a long shadow over this market. Some expect a

Florida Supreme Court

decision on whether to include hand recounts in the final tally as soon as tomorrow. Yesterday, the markets swung higher, and then lower as the Republicans and then Democrats delivered compelling arguments to the court.

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Sector Watch

Among the technology stocks performing well are the fiber-optics and networking companies.

Ciena

(CIEN) - Get Report

was advancing sharply, gaining 5.4%, and

Corning

(GLW) - Get Report

, rose 4.7%.

Defensive-minded investors were having a grand day out with tobacco names.

Philip Morris

(MO) - Get Report

, to date the best-performing stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average this year, was up 1.2% today, helping the

S&P Tobacco Index

to a 2% gain.

The retailers were sinking ahead of

Home Depot's

(HD) - Get Report

analyst meeting, later today.

This down day for retailers follows a string of better days, as investors shed volatile tech stocks and after a few retailers managed to meet earnings expectations -- namely

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

and

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

.

But retailers have mostly been under pressure as several big sector players warned of slowing earnings going forward. Home Depot met earnings estimates for the third quarter, but warned that its fourth quarter and fiscal 2001 earnings may be weaker than expected due to a more competitive retail environment.

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Bonds/Economy

Treasuries are slightly lower on little news. The primary influence on bond prices continues to be the stock market, where selloffs spur buying of Treasuries and rallies trigger selling of Treasuries.

Yesterday's stock-market selloff produced modest gains for Treasuries. Today, stocks are in the green and Treasuries are in the red. The benchmark 10-year

Treasury note lately was down 3/32 at 100 15/32, lifting its yield to 5.687%.

In economic news, the

trade deficit

(

definition |

chart |

source

) swelled to a record $34 billion in September as import growth outpaced export growth. Imports rose 3.1% to $126 billion, while exports fell 0.7% to $92 billion. A much smaller widening, to $30.85 billion, had been forecast by economists polled by

Reuters

.

The rising deficit has no clear market implication, but it will probably result in a substantial downward revision to the third-quarter

gross domestic product

(

definition |

chart |

source

) growth rate, which the government will restate next Wednesday. The initial estimate of 2.7% is likely to be revised to 2.0%, economists at

Barclays Capital

said.

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