Stocks end nearly flat after early rally fades

U.S. stocks rallied early Thursday before the indexes gave up most of their gains.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Major U.S. stock indexes ended nearly flat Thursday after an early rally lost its strength toward the end of the day.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index managed to hold on to a tiny gain, extending its winning streak to a third day. The benchmark index, which is within 0.7% of the all-time high it set July 26, is still slightly down for the week.

Healthcare, technology, utilities and other sectors rose, largely outweighing losses elsewhere in the market Thursday. Bond yields were little changed.


The market rallied in the early going as investors weighed a batch of encouraging economic reports. The positive data reinforced the outlook from the Federal Reserve, which projects slower economic growth but not a recession.

On Wednesday, the Fed reduced its benchmark interest rate for the second time this year in a bid to keep the economy from stalling in the face of slowing economic growth overseas and uncertainty over the U.S.-China trade war.

Fed officials were sharply divided in their outlook for future interest rate policy. As a result, the central bank didn’t indicate clearly whether more rate cuts were likely this year. Still, Fed officials left the door open for additional rate cuts if the economy weakens.

“That’s a nuanced message that markets are beginning to feel comfortable with,” said Kate Warne, chief investment strategist at Edward Jones. “And the fact that the economic data today was a little better than expected is reassuring, as opposed to worrisome, in an environment where there’s a lot of variation among voting members” of the Fed.

The S&P 500 rose 0.06 of a point, or less than 0.1%, to 3,006.79. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gave up an early gain, slipping 52.29 points, or 0.2%, to 27,094.79.

The Nasdaq squeaked out a gain of 5.49 points, or 0.1%, to 8,182.88.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks ended down 6.87 points, or 0.4%, at 1,561.47.

Bond prices were little changed. The yield on the 10-year Treasury held at 1.78%.

Traders were encouraged Thursday by new economic snapshots, including data indicating U.S. home sales rose sharply last month and an index of manufacturing activity that beat analysts’ forecasts. Applications for U.S. unemployment aid edged up last week but still totaled less than what economists projected.

Meanwhile, France’s finance minister said Europe is ready to impose retaliatory tariffs next year on U.S. goods as part of a long-running dispute over subsidies to plane makers Airbus and Boeing.

Merck was a big winner among health stocks Thursday, rising 1.1%. Microsoft climbed 1.8% after the software giant boosted its quarterly dividend and approved a $40-billion stock buyback. Sempra Energy rose 1.1%, leading the gainers in the utilities sector.

Financial and industrial stocks were among the losers. Regions Financial slid 1.4%. Southwest Airlines declined 2%.

Energy stocks, which rallied earlier in the week as crude oil prices soared following an attack on key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, also declined. Hess slid 2%.

Several home builders rose after the National Assn. of Realtors said that sales of previously occupied U.S. homes climbed last month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 5.49 million units, the best performance since March 2018. Sales have increased 2.6% from a year ago. Hovnanian Enterprises shares gained 3.6%.

U.S. Steel sank 11.2% after it warned investors that its third-quarter loss will be wider than anticipated.

Darden Restaurants fell 5.1% after the owner of the Olive Garden and other restaurant chains reported quarterly results that disappointed investors. The company’s earnings beat Wall Street forecasts, but other performance metrics lagged amid weaker sales at some of Darden’s chains.

Benchmark U.S. crude edged up 2 cents to settle at $58.13 a barrel. It’s up 6.3% this week. Brent crude, the international standard, rose 80 cents to close at $64.40 a barrel.

Wholesale gasoline rose 4 cents to $1.70 a gallon. Heating oil climbed 3 cents to $2.00 a gallon. Natural gas fell 10 cents to $2.54 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Gold fell $9.10 to $1,498.40 an ounce. Silver fell 3 cents to $17.77 an ounce. Copper fell 1 cent to $2.59 a pound.