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What Happened in the Stock Market Today

Steve Symington, The Motley Fool

The stock market declined for a second consecutive session on Friday amid ongoing concerns that Congress' tax reform plans will face delays. Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI) and the S&P; 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC) traded solidly lower throughout the day before paring their losses into the close.

Today's stock market

Index Percentage Change Point Change
Dow (0.17%) (39.73)
S&P 500 (0.09%) (2.32)

Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

Healthcare stocks were among today's biggest decliners, leaving the Health Care SPDR ETF (NYSEMKT: XLV) down 0.7%. Meanwhile, consumer goods stocks bucked the broader trend, and the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSEMKT: XLP) gained for the fourth straight day, up 1%.

As for individual stocks, an encouraging quarterly report from J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP) sent shares of the department-store chain soaring, while a pessimistic analyst note left Finish Line (NASDAQ: FINL) searching for a floor.

Stock market prices and charts overlaying an LED display with stock market data

Image source: Getty Images.

J.C. Penney's not-so-bad quarter

Shares of J.C. Penney popped 14.7% after the company announced better-than-expected third-quarter 2017 results. Net sales fell 1.8% year over year to $2.81 billion, primarily due to the absence of 139 stores closed so far this year. But comparable sales climbed 1.7%, well above J.C. Penney's guidance (provided late last month) for an increase of 0.6% to 0.8%.

On the bottom line, that translated to an adjusted net loss of $102 million, or $0.33 per share, compared to a loss of $65 million, or $0.21 per share in the same year-ago period. This was comfortably ahead of J.C. Penney's outlook for a wider per-share loss of $0.45 to $0.40.

"[W]e took aggressive actions to clear slow-moving inventory, primarily allowing for an improved apparel assortment heading in to the Holiday season," explained Chairman and CEO Marvin Ellison. "While these actions had a negative short-term impact on profitability in the third quarter, we firmly believe it was the right decision for the company as we transition into the fourth quarter and fiscal 2018."

Finally, J.C. Penney reaffirmed its full-year 2017 guidance, which calls for comparable-store sales to be in the range of flat to down 1%, and for adjusted earnings per share in the range of $0.02 to $0.08. 

Given its relative outperformance in the third quarter, however, it seems J.C. Penney may have opted to underpromise and overdeliver as it works to capitalize on the crucial holiday season.

The Finish Line's promotional problem

Finish Line stock dropped 9% after Cowen analyst John Kernan downgraded the athletic footwear retailer to underperform from market perform, and reduced his firm's per-share price target to $7 from $10. For perspective, Finish Line stock closed the week at $9.10 per share.

To justify his bearishness, Kernan argued that Finish Line's margins and brand relationships are set to suffer given "skyrocketing" promotions at its retail stores.

"Aggressively undercutting Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour on price is not sustainable as brands eliminate allocations to undifferentiated retailers and focus on digital and differentiated experiences," he elaborated in a note to clients.

To be fair, Finish Line CEO Sam Soto admitted in September that his company's growth last quarter was held back by a "very promotional marketplace for athletic footwear." But he also insisted that Finish Line was prepared to continue weathering today's difficult retail environment as it exercises discipline in managing expenses and inventories.

Barring a preliminary update on its current-quarter performance, investors will need to wait for Finish Line to release its third-quarter results in December before it's clear whether Cowen's downgrade is merited.

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Steve Symington owns shares of UA. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends NKE, UAA, and UA. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.