Stock indexes rally to more record highs, led by tech gains

Outside the New York Stock Exchange.
Outside the New York Stock Exchange.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Another rally on Wall Street powered stock indexes to more records Thursday.

The Standard & Poor’s 500, Dow Jones industrial average and Nasdaq composite notched all-time highs, extending the market’s gains after a strong start to the year.

The S&P 500 climbed 27.52 points, or 0.8%, to 3,316.81. The Dow rose 267.42 points, or 0.9%, to 29,297.64. The Nasdaq gained 98.44 points, or 1.1%, to 9,357.13. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks jumped 22.82 points, or 1.4%, to 1,705.22.

A batch of solid economic data injected more optimism into markets a day after the signing of an initial trade deal between the U.S. and China.

Consumers have been the backbone of economic growth, and the government’s December report on retail sales showed that they continued spending at a healthy pace. Encouraging reports on manufacturing, weekly applications for unemployment aid and home builders’ confidence also helped lift the market. Investors also weighed a mixed bag of corporate earnings.


The good economic news follows the signing of the phase one trade deal between the U.S. and China that puts the nations on a clearer path to ending their 18-month-long trade war. The pact eases some sanctions on China, which has agreed to step up its purchases of U.S. farm products and other goods.

Meanwhile, the Senate approved a new North American trade agreement Thursday that rewrites the rules of commerce with Canada and Mexico.

The trade deals and positive economic data have helped fuel optimism that corporate profits will be strong this year after coming in flat to down for most of 2019, and that’s keeping investors in a buying mood.

“Because we are continuing to see 2-2.5% GDP growth in the U.S., because both economic growth and earnings are expected to show gains in both the developed and emerging markets, that will likely lead to better earnings here in the U.S.,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA.

Bond prices fell, sending yields higher. The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 1.80% from 1.78% late Wednesday.

Technology companies were the clear leaders Thursday. Many of the companies stand to benefit from progress in trade relations because they are reliant on China for sales and supplies. Microsoft rose 1.8%, and Cisco Systems gained 2.2%.

Google parent Alphabet was one of several big companies to climb to an all-time high. The internet search giant’s market value also moved above the $1-trillion mark for the first time, joining Apple and Microsoft.

A mix of retailers and consumer product makers also made solid gains. Home Depot rose 1.9%, and Hanesbrands gained 2%.

Energy, materials and utilities companies lagged the market in another sign that investors were confidently shifting more money into riskier holdings.

The first heavy week of corporate earnings reports rolled along Thursday with banks mostly finishing their reporting. Investment bank Morgan Stanley climbed 6.6% after reporting a surprisingly good jump in fourth-quarter profits on the strength of its trading desks. Bank of New York Mellon dropped 7.8% after reporting disappointing revenue.

Paint and coatings maker PPG Industries slid 2.5% after falling short of Wall Street’s profit forecasts. Aluminum producer Alcoa tumbled 11.9% after reporting a surprisingly sharp loss.

Although only a small slice of the S&P 500 companies has reported quarterly results so far, management teams have been giving a mostly improved earnings outlook, Stovall said.

Wall Street expects S&P 500 companies’ corporate profits for the last three months of 2019 will be down by 1.7%. That would mark the first time companies in the benchmark index would post declining earnings four quarters in a row since the period ending in mid-2016, according to FactSet. Companies typically outperform forecasts and temper expectations for sharp declines by the time the bulk of financial reporting is done.

Traders are focusing mainly on companies’ outlooks for growth this year after posting flat-to-down earnings through the first three quarters of 2019.

Companies’ earnings growth was limited last year because of uncertainty over U.S. trade conflicts and jitters amid signs that the global economy was slowing. The bar for companies to exceed their prior year quarterly results also was unusually high, as the Trump administration’s sweeping corporate tax cuts helped power 2018 company earnings sharply higher.

“A lot of people are assuming that the 2020 [earnings] growth of 7.9% will be revised substantially higher,” Stovall said, noting that earnings growth expectations this year are higher for small caps stocks than they are for large caps. That’s one reason why smaller-company stocks outperformed the broader market Thursday.

Traders bid up shares in Signet Jewelers sharply higher after the diamond jewelry retailer significantly raised its fourth-quarter profit forecast. The company made the change because a strong holiday shopping season that will push a key sales measure to a big gain for the quarter. The stock vaulted 40.2%.

Benchmark crude oil rose 71 cents to $58.52 a barrel. Brent crude oil, the international standard, gained 62 cents to $64.62 a barrel.

Gold fell $3.10 to $1,549.00 an ounce, and silver fell 4 cents to $17.88 an ounce.

The dollar rose to 110.13 Japanese yen from 109.91 yen Wednesday. The euro weakened to $1.1135 from $1.1150.