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Stocks eke out third day of gains as investors await progress on trade talks

Stocks eke out third day of gains as investors await progress on trade talks
Specialist Anthony Matesic, right, works with traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Friday. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Wall Street capped another day of listless trading Wednesday with a slight gain, extending the market's winning streak to a third day.

Financial, materials and industrial companies accounted for much of the gain, outweighing losses in healthcare and real estate stocks as investors reviewed the latest batch of company earnings reports.

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Garmin, maker of fitness trackers and navigation technology, rose after reporting better sales. CVS Health slumped after the pharmacy operator gave a 2019 outlook that fell short of Wall Street's expectations.

Stock indexes spent much of the day wavering between small gains and losses as traders waited for signs of progress in the latest round of trade talks between the U.S. and China.

“Investors are a bit concerned that we might indeed be slipping into an earnings recession,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA. “They're really sitting on pins and needles as it relates to the trade talks.”

The Wednesday afternoon release of the minutes from the Federal Reserve's meeting of policymakers last month didn't hold any big surprises for investors.

Traders typically review the minutes in hopes of gleaning new insight into the central bank's interest rate policy. At the meeting last month, Fed officials kept the central bank's benchmark interest rate steady and, in a significant shift, sent a strong signal that they saw no need to raise rates anytime soon. That change helped drive the stock market higher in January.

The benchmark S&P 500 index, which has risen for the last three weeks, gained 4.94 points, or 0.2%, to 2,784.70. The Dow Jones Industrial Average added 63.12 points, or 0.2%, to 25,954.44.

The Nasdaq composite rose 2.30 points, or 0.03%, to 7,489.07. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies picked up 7.19 points, or 0.5%, to 1,581.66.

Major European indexes finished higher.

Roughly 84% of S&P 500 companies have reported results for the last three months of 2018, delivering earnings growth of about 13% versus a year earlier, according to FactSet. First-quarter snapshots are expected to result in a 2.7% decline in earnings, however.

Despite the solid profit growth in the last quarter, investors are cautious about business conditions as signs of weakness in the global economy emerge. Europe and China have both reported slower growth.

Uncertainty over the costly trade dispute between the world's largest economies has clouded the outlook for company profits this year.

“The earnings [outlook] reductions have been the result of the trade disagreement between China and the U.S.,” Stovall said. “Should that get resolved, we could see a reversal of that trajectory.”

The Trump administration was set Thursday to resume high-level talks with Chinese officials after two days of preliminary talks by lower-level officials.

The two sides, aiming to ease a trade standoff that has unnerved global investors and clouded the outlook for the world economy, held talks in Beijing last week. U.S. officials said those talks made some progress on difficult issues such as China's blueprint for making its industries world leaders in advanced technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence.

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The Trump administration has raised tariffs on billions of dollars' worth of Chinese goods and the U.S. is due to increase them on March 2, following a 90-day truce to allow time for the negotiations now underway. President Trump has indicated the deadline might be extended if progress is being made.

Investors continued to assess corporate report cards Wednesday.

Garmin jumped 17% after reporting better sales and profit margins in the fourth quarter. The company's latest forecast came in ahead of financial analysts' projections. The stock led all others in the consumer discretionary sector, which includes retailers, automakers and restaurant chains.

La-Z-Boy surged 11.8% after the furniture company's latest quarterly earnings and revenue exceeded analysts' forecasts. The company benefited from higher average spending. Recent acquisitions also helped boost La-Z-Boy's results.

Cadence Design Systems climbed 4.6% after the software and engineering services company's latest quarterly results topped Wall Street's forecasts. The stock was the technology sector's biggest gainer.

CVS Health slumped 8.1% after the pharmacy operator issued a 2019 outlook that fell short of analysts' estimates. Chief Executive Larry Merlo said in a prepared statement that 2019 would be “a year of transition” as the company integrates the health insurer Aetna, which it purchased in a roughly $69-billion deal last year. A federal judge is still evaluating the acquisition.

Oil prices rebounded after an early slide. U.S. benchmark crude rose 1.5% to settle at $56.92 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the standard for international oil prices, gained 0.9% to close at $67.08 a barrel in London.

Bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.65% from 2.64% late Tuesday.

The dollar rose to 110.84 yen from 110.66 yen on Tuesday. The euro strengthened to $1.1350 from $1.1340.

Gold added 0.2% to $1,347.90 an ounce. Silver gained 1.3% to $16.18 an ounce. Copper jumped 1.6% to $2.92 a pound.

In other energy futures trading, wholesale gasoline climbed 2.2% to $1.60 a gallon. Heating oil added 1.2% to $2.02 a gallon. Natural gas dropped 1% to $2.64 per 1,000 cubic feet.​​​​​​

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