Here's What Ailed the S&P 500 Today

Today wasn't a record-breaking day for economic news by any means, but that didn't stop the S&P 500 (INDEX: ^GSPC) from ticking moderately lower by 8.84 points (0.61%) to 1429.08. Leading the market lower was a mixture of news and uncertainty. As Foolish colleague John Maxfield highlighted this morning, the weakest industrial output growth for China since 2009 and multiple sources of European uncertainty are weighing on the markets. It also doesn't help that consumer credit fell for the first time in a year in July, further escalating fears of a spending slowdown. Let's take a look at what companies helped buck the trend today and which ones perpetuated the dip.

Companies that helped the S&P 500
The United States' third-largest mobile network, Sprint Nextel (NYS: S) , had a particularly good day, up more than 2% following an analyst upgrade from Nomura Securities to "buy" from "neutral." The reason for the upgrade, and subsequent price target boost to $7 from $2.50, was a mixture of an overstatement of Sprint's competitive risks and cost-saving actions the company has undertaken. While Nomura notes that it's unlikely to expect Sprint to achieve the same margin potential as AT&T and Verizon, the simple fact that consumers are switching mobile companies less should be a positive.

Construction aggregate, concrete, and cement supplier Vulcan Materials (NYS: VMC) also had a nice day, up nearly 3%. The reason for the move relates to the European Central Bank's plan to buy bonds from member nations, which should help to stabilize lending rates in the region and free up local governments to spend more on infrastructure -- including U.S. state and local governments. In addition, Vulcan is being pursued by Martin Marietta, which offered to buy the company in December in an all-stock bid. A judge ordered Martin Marietta drop its hostile-takeover bid in May; however, that injunction is set to expire in a week.

Companies that hindered the S&P 500
For-profit education company Apollo Group (NAS: APOL) was sent to the corner today, down better than 7% after Deutsche Bank downgraded it to "sell" on Friday from "hold" and lowering its price target to $25. Deutsche Bank cited the potential for increased competition as the reason for the downgrade. Given the possibility for increased governmental regulation, I couldn't agree more.

Don't think for a moment that Deutsche Bank was done wielding its power. The brokerage firm also downgraded much of the paper sector, including International Paper (NYS: IP) from "buy" to "hold," noting that investors have placed too much emphasis on the potential for industry consolidation. As I've noted recently, input price inflation remains a very visible concern for the paper and pulp sector in spite of investors' overall optimism.

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