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Upgrades & Downgrades: Check Is in the Mail at Aeropostale

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

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No, Virginia, there isn't a Santa Claus. Markets, which shot up sharply on Monday after a speech from Ben Bernanke in Arlington, lost ground on Tuesday as the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond announced its survey of regional manufacturing activity slid steeply in March. Investors were equally unnerved by a decline in consumer confidence which was largely due to ongoing pain at the pump; little surprise then that the most confident economy on Earth currently belongs to Saudi Arabia. Financials fared worst as equities snapped a two-day winning streak, though there were notable winners elsewhere. Fourteen years to the day after it introduced Viagra in the very same quarter Clinton's libido got him into so much trouble with Lewinsky - the events occurring simultaneously was surely just a coincidence - Pfizer (PFE) showed no performance anxiety at all. Indeed the world's biggest drug maker easily bested all blue chips with a 1.53% increase to finish at its highest close since 2004. Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has, by all accounts, done his bit to boost sales of the little blue pill, but hey, it's hard out there for a pimp. Slick Willie famously didn't inhale, yet targeting the marijuana market has been a breath of fresh air for Scotts Miracle-Gro (SMG), which ended a down day up 1.60%.

Home prices have now fallen for five straight months according to Case-Shiller, although Lennar Corp (LEN) gained 4.66% to hit its highest level in half a decade as pockets of the real estate sector show some signs of life, even those where your neighbors are six feet under. Japan's Sharp Corp (SHCAY.PK ) surged 20.39% for its biggest daily increase in a decade and, according to my trusty iconic 1970s calculator, Apple Inc (AAPL) reached its 27th record high since the start of 2012. This after an analyst increased his price objective from $600, or what fines for insider trading amount to in Tokyo. Ben Bernanke can afford to go back to school but investors in Apollo Group (APOL) certainly can't, the University of Phoenix operator falling from the ashes with a 8.47% tumble that propped up the entire S&P 500 Index (^GSPC). And it was a mixed day for gridiron quarterback spokesmen. Ugg endorser Tom Brady saw his Deckers Outdoor (DECK) end down 3.33% even as Troy Aikman's Rent-A-Center (RCII) rode an analyst upgrade to advance 2.89% en route to hitting the highest price in its history. No word yet on what fellow football player Tim Tebow thinks of that. But you can bet he's "excited" about it. Today's earnings announcements are expected to include AuRico Gold (AUQ), Commerical Metals (CMC), Family Dollar (FDO), H.B. Fuller (FUL), Mosaic (MOS), Paychex (PAYX) and Red Hat (RHT).


Initiations:

Blue Nile (NILE): Shares of the online diamond retailer are resumed with a Neutral rating and $33 price objective at Susquehanna.

Brightcove (BCOV): The cloud-based computing outfit is initiated with an Equal Weight at Morgan Stanley.

Check Point Software (CHKP): Shares are begun with a Buy at Nomura.

Citrix Systems (CTXS): Nomura has a new Neutral on CTXS.

Fortinet Inc (FTNT): The application software firm is a fresh Neutral at Nomura.

Freescale Semiconductor (FSL): Goldman Sachs assigns a Neutral rating on the company.

HomeAway (AWAY): Shares are picked up with a Positive at Susquehanna.

Oil & gas pipelines: Kinder Morgan Management (KMR), Kinder Morgan Energy (KMP) Kinder Morgan Inc (KMI), El Paso Corp (EP), and El Paso Pipeline Partners (EPB) are all initiated with Equal Weights at Morgan Stanley.

Weight Watchers (WTW): Credit Suisse starts the company at an Outperform.


Upgrades:

Aéropostale (ARO): The teen apparel outfit is upgraded to Outperform from Neutral with Wedbush.

DIRECTV (DTV): Citigroup boosts its recommendation to Buy from Neutral.

Japanese banks: Mitsubishi Financial (MTU) and Mizuho UJF Financial (MFG) both get Buy-from-Hold hoists at Jefferies.

KLA-Tencor (KLAC): The tech firm is taken to Outperform from Neutral by BNP Paribas.

NVIDIA (NVDA): NVDA is now Market Perform from Underperform at JMP Securities.

Progressive (PGR): Credit Suisse upgrades shares to Outperform from Neutral and also takes its target price up by $5 to $26. Policies are expected to accelerate as peers raise their rates.

PAREXEL (PRXL): The pharmaceutical research contractor is juiced to Buy from Hold at Jefferies.

First Horizon (FHN): Shares are now Neutral from Underperform at Sterne Agee.

Hatteras Financial (HTS): HTS is increased to Buy from Hold by Deutsche Bank.

Telecom Italia (TI): JPMorgan takes TI up Overweight from Neutral.

Zoltek (ZOLT): The stock is now Hold from Underperform Sell at Needham as a partnership with Magna International (MGA) provides it with an entry point into the sizeable automotive market. Shares are surging ahead of the open as a result.


Downgrades:

Verizon (VZ): The Dow member gets downgraded to Sector Perform from Outperform at RBC Capital.

NYSE Euronext (NYX): Shares are slashed to Sell from Hold at Stifel Nicolaus, which says they have lost market share in its US and EU cash equities and derivatives businesses.

Nestlé (NSRGY.PK): The confectionery giant is lower in London this morning after getting cut to Neutral from Buy at UBS due to valuation, even as it still anticipates "solid top-line" performance in the first quarter.

A123 Systems (AONE): Shares are downgraded to Hold from Buy at Deutsche Bank.

Arena Pharmaceuticals (ARNA): ARNA is now Neutral from Overweight at Piper Jaffray.

Audiocodes (AUDC): The small cap is cut to Perform from Outperform at Oppenheimer after an earnings pre-announcement lowered 2012 forecasts by 13%.

Capital One Financial (COF): Citigroup pulls the company from its Top Picks Live list.

Chimera Investment (CIM): CIM gets lowered to Hold from Buy at Deutsche Bank.

F5 Networks (FFIV): FFIV is reduced to Sector Perform from Outperform at FBN Securities.

IAC/InterActive (IACI): The Match.com owner was moved to Neutral from Buy at Citi amid a less compelling risk-reward ratio.

Synnex (SNX): Shares are slumping before the bell after getting downgraded to Neutral from Buy at Citigroup.

Weatherford International (WFT): The oil services outfit is now Neutral from Buy at Guggenheim.

Meadowbrook Insurance Group (MIG): MIG gets moved to Market Perform from Outperform with a new lower $10 target at FBR Capital.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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