Caterpillar Churns Higher as the Dow Creeps Toward Record High

The  Dow Jones Industrial Average is riding a market surge back toward the record high it set at the end of 2013. As of 2:30 p.m. EST, the blue-chip index has gained 75 points -- leaving it just 152 points off its 16,588 record -- buoyed by gains from all but a handful of its 30 member stocks. Heavy machinery maker Caterpillar has gained 1.5% to lead the index higher. Let's catch up on what you need to know.

Caterpillar makes the most of the day
Downbeat economic data put the Dow on unsure footing to start the day, as the Commerce Department said American factory orders fell 0.7% in January, according. Durable goods orders plunged an even more precipitous plunge 1.1% for the month. Economists did expect a fall - after all, factory orders fell 2% in December - but January's drop was still greater than average estimates. Some of the blame is likely to fall on the unusually bad weather we've seen this winter, a factor that hindered the January purchasing managers' index as well, so keep a close eye on whether factory orders can pick up steam when February data is released.

Still, the disappointing release hasn't hurt Dow leader Caterpillar today, as the manufacturing stock has jumped despite a lack of much news from the company. While Caterpillar ranked among the Dow's worst performers in 2013, it caught a new bounce this year, rising more than 6% year to date to rank among the index''s five best-performing stocks.

Caterpillar still faces tough challenges ahead in turning around its downbeat financial performance as of late, particularly as revenue has fallen cross the board over the past year. That has been most notable in its resource Industries division, which saw sales drop by a painful 37% year over year in 2013, headlined by a 56% revenue drop in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the global economy's slow but steady improvement has lifted hopes for investors around the industrial sector, as this is a cyclical sector more reliant than most on the broader economy's rise.

It's a big retail stock outside the Dow that is making the big market-shaking news today. Staples investors have taken a pounding today as the stock has plunged by nearly 15%, by far the market's major loser. The terrible day came after the office supply company announced it will close as many as 225 stores in North America in the face of falling sales and a struggling business. The closures will represent more than 12% of its total locations in the U.S. and Canada.

It's all part of a plan that Staples hopes will save it $500 million annually in pre-tax costs as the company's revenue and profit struggle. Staples projects earnings per share in its first quarter of $0.22, a full $0.05 below analyst projections. That came on the heels of the company's announcement that fourth-quarter sales from stores open at least a year fell by 7%. With the retail sector in a downswing right now and Staples challenged both by tough competition and the encroachment of online giants, it's hard to say that this stock's going to recover today's monumental losses any time soon.

Don't let Staples's dive impact your long-term strategy
Staples might be plunging today, but the market's still moving toward record highs. However, millions of Americans have waited on the sidelines since the market meltdown in 2008 and 2009, too scared to invest and put their money at further risk. Yet those who've stayed out of the market have missed out on huge gains and put their financial futures in jeopardy. In our brand-new special report, "Your Essential Guide to Start Investing Today," The Motley Fool's personal finance experts show you why investing is so important and what you need to do to get started. Click here to get your copy today -- it's absolutely free.

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