Competing economic reports vied for investors’ attention today. Housing prices continued to sink, and durable goods orders in January were much lower than expected. However, consumer sentiment held up surprisingly well in a month when gas prices could have taken the shine off of a pickup in the economic recovery.
The Dow gained 23 points to close above 13,000, with 20 of its 30 components higher; the S&P 500 advanced 4; and the Nasdaq rose 20. Advancers narrowly led decliners on the NYSE, and the opposite was true on the Nasdaq. The prices of Treasuries weakened. Gold futures rose $13.50 to close at $1,788.40 an ounce, while the price of crude oil fell $2.01 to settle at $106.55 a barrel.
In Other Business News:
- Consumer confidence jumped in February to the second-highest level since before the financial crisis in 2008, according to the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index. Despite higher gas prices, which tend to reduce sentiment, the index rose to 70.8 from an upwardly revised 61.5 in January. The biggest change came from the future expectations component, which rose 11.3 points to 88, indicating that consumers are getting more confident about the coming months.
- Home prices continued to decline in December, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index. Of the 20 cities tracked by the index, 18 showed price declines month over month, with only Phoenix and Miami notching increases. The biggest drops were in Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit. Year over year, 19 of the markets declined, with several markets hitting new lows of the cycle.
- After rising in November and December, durable goods orders unexpectedly fell 4% in January, according to the Department of Commerce. Big drops in orders for aircraft, computers, and heavy machinery dragged down the number. Orders for autos managed a 0.9% increase. The decline is partially due to the expiration of a business tax credit at the end of 2011, which caused some businesses to push orders up to December.
- Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny announced today that he would call for a public referendum on the European Union budget discipline treaty. The treaty needs 12 member states to ratify it. While a rejection of the treaty by Ireland’s voters wouldn’t automatically kill the treaty, it would have another effect: Ireland would no longer be eligible for bailouts from the European Stability Mechanism, the permanent bailout fund. The prospect of a voter rejection also introduces further turmoil in Europe at a time when more speculation about Europe is not needed.
Here are the latest odd, ironic, and incongruous stories from the business (and not-so-business) world:
- During a live ABC World News report about rising gas prices—filmed in front of a gas station—the price of gas literally went up 10 cents as the reporter was talking, from $4.99 a gallon to $5.09 a gallon. That sounds about right (although that must have been the price for premium).
- Even the Tooth Fairy is cutting back on expenses, perhaps because of those high gas prices. According to the Original Tooth Fairy Poll, a survey of 100,000 randomly selected Delta Dental subscribers, the average amount left under children’s pillows fell 42 cents last year to $2.10. Still, that’s up a decent amount from the year of the poll’s launch in 1998, when the average was $1.25, and much higher than the nickel or so I’d get for a tooth. Given the recent drop in tooth-related prices, my advice to those with baby teeth is to hold out at least for another year until the tooth market stabilizes (it’s a little known fact that the tooth market is correlated with the housing market). I also advise that if a tooth is about to fall out and there is absolutely no way to avoid it, you constantly wiggle the tooth at the dinner table and drive your parents crazy. Trust me, that way you’ll eventually get a better price for the offending incisor.
- The desire for cheap Apple knockoffs is so strong in China that manufacturers are putting illicit Apple logos on pretty much anything nowadays. The International Herald Tribune reports that the latest knockoff is, well, it’s not even a knockoff. It’s a portable one-burner stove—yes, a stove—that had the word “iPhone” slapped on it. Luckily, Chinese authorities removed the stove from store shelves. Not because the stoves were committing an egregious and downright inexplicable use of Apple’s logo but, according to the paper, because the stoves were unsafe. The moral of the story is never, ever stick an Apple logo on a product unless the product is safe. And then it’s probably OK (although maybe check with Apple first; it might have different ideas).
- And finally, speaking of cheap knockoffs, students at Lehigh University have calculated how much it would cost to build the Death Star from Star Wars. Assuming it was made of steel and had roughly the same density as a modern battleship, the students figured it would take 1.08x1015 tonnes of steel and 833,315 years of mining at current rates of steel production. The cost? $852,000,000,000,000,000 in current dollars, or 13,000 times current world gross domestic product, or GDP. For a single planet, 13,000 times GDP might be excessive, but remember, it’s a Galactic Empire of 1.5 million worlds out there. So go ahead and get started, and slap an “iPhone” logo on it when you’re done for good measure.