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Stock Downgrades: Hump Day Headache for Cliffs Natural Resources

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Wall Street ratings agencies set the tone for today's stock market.

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Light volume, with several financial power players away eating unleavened bread for Passover, couldn't stop stocks' inexorable rise to new records on a day that made many people plenty of dough. Europe's house of cards played second fiddle to surging US home prices and American Express (AXP) - longtime logo: "Don't leave home without it" - was a testament to American excess, hitting the highest level in its illustrious history.

Dr Pepper Snapple (DPS) also finished at an historic best, partying like we are still in 1996. (For its principal product, we still are, although not in any "irrationally ebullient" way.) And Omaha's own Warren Buffett enriched himself at the expense of Goldman Sachs (GS) when it is Nebraska's unloved hometown hero Gordmans Stores (GMAN) that could really use his cash after falling 15.26%.

Today in economics, analysts expect a slight slippage in pending home sales for February at 10:00 a.m. Eastern. On the earnings front, expect Allied Irish Banks (AIB), China Automotive (CAAS), China Life Insurance (LFC), Paychex (PAYX), PVH Corp. (PVH), Red Hat (RHT), and Texas Industries (TXI) to release results.

Apollo Group (APOL): Wells Fargo moves the for-profit education firm, whose shares have been especially volatile this week, to Market Perform from Outperform.

Charles River Laboratories (CRL): The stock is lowered to Market Perform from Outperform with Wells.

Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE:CLF): Wednesday woe for the long suffering stock, moved to Underweight from Equal-Weight with a target price of $14 at Morgan Stanley this morning. (Note that it also scored a simultaneous upgrade at Goldman Sachs; who says all Wall Street analysts tend to move in tandem?) Shares have slid 69.73% in the past 12 months and so far the downgrade appears to be carrying more weight, with the stock off another 7.05% as I write. Morgan's concerns include the negative impact on iron ore arising from a lift in supply from the Great Lakes region.

Enphase Energy (ENPH): ENPH gets moved to Underperform from Market Perform at Raymond James.

Ingersoll-Rand (IR): IR is moved to Neutral from Overweight at JPMorgan.

Obagi Medical Products (OMPI): Roth Capital reduces its rating to Neutral from Buy on the equity, no longer trading on fundamentals following an acquisition offer.

Sun Bancorp (SNBC): SNBC is slashed to Underperform from Neutral at Sterne Agee.

Syngenta (SYT): Shares in the agricultural chemical company are now Neutral from Overweight at HSBC Securities.

Western Alliance Bancorp (WAL): Keefe Bruyette cuts the company to Market Perform from Outperform.

ZIOPHARM (ZIOP): The micro cap is moved to Market Perform from Market Outperform by brokerage boutique Brinson Patrick.

(See also: New Stock Coverage: Scarlet Letter for Crimson Exploration and Stock Upgrades: AOL, You've Got a Check in the Mail.)
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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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