North American markets opened slightly lower but soon managed some minor gains, with traders reluctant to take on new long positions ahead of U.S. spending cuts set to take hold on Friday and more testimony today from Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.
In early trading, the S&P/TSX composite index was up 17 points, or 0.1 per cent, at 12,678; the S&P 500 was up 3 points, or 0.2 per cent, at 1,500; and the Dow Jones industrial average was up 27 points, or 0.2 per cent, at 13,932. Commodities were generally softer, with oil down 32 cents at $92.31 (U.S.) per barrel and gold down $9.20 at $1,606.30 an ounce.
European markets were generally higher this morning, including in Italy where the FTSE MIB index was up 0.4 per cent after it dropped nearly 5 per cent on Tuesday . But moves were rather subdued and not enough to mark a significant retracement from Tuesday's losses, which were prompted by renewed European debt concerns after the Italian election produced a hung government.
Mr. Bernanke is speaking in front of the Financial Services Committee at 10 a.m. (ET), the second day of the Fed's semiannual report to Congress on the economy. Investors found encouragement on Tuesday in his remarks that suggested no wavering in his commitment to the central bank's $85-billion bond-buying program.
Investors continue to show little alarm over the more than $80-billion in U.S. spending cuts that are scheduled to take hold Friday unless the Republicans and Democrats agree on measures to blunt their impact. So far, there's been little in the way of formal negotiations, and it seems taking action on the spending cuts may have to wait until more broader budgetary talks later in March.
In economic data this morning, the U.S. Commerce Department said durable goods orders in January fell 5.2 per cent. But that was in line with economists' forecasts, and excluding the transportation sector, orders rose 1.9 per cent.
Here's a look at some key stocks moving on news this morning:
Target's fiscal fourth-quarter net income dipped 2 per cent, and the company gave a disappointing full-year outlook. Shares opened down 3.4 per cent.
Sears Canada said total revenue in the fourth quarter dropped to about $1.3-billion, down about $60-million from a year earlier, as same-store sales fell 3.8 per cent. Shares opened down 3.7 per cent.
TransAlta Corp. said fourth-quarter adjusted earnings rose to 21 cents a share from 13 cents a year earlier. Shares opened down 0.5 per cent.
First Solar Inc. late Tuesday estimated its first-quarter sales would come in below below Wall Street estimates. Shares are down 14 per cent.
Priceline.com late Tuesday reported better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings. Shares are up 4 per cent.
Sherritt International Corp. reported adjusted quarterly profit of 3 cents per share, missing analysts' forecasts for 11 cents. Shares opened down about 4 per cent.
Apple Inc. shareholders are gathering for the tech giant's annual meeting today. Shares opened down 0.5 per cent.