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Stocks rise as recovery hopes overshadow coronavirus worries

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo rings the New York Stock Exchange opening bell
The floor of the New York Stock Exchange reopened Tuesday, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ringing the opening bell.
(New York Stock Exchange / Associated Press)

Stocks on Wall Street closed higher Tuesday, driving the Standard & Poor’s 500 index and Dow Jones industrial average to their highest levels in nearly three months as optimism over the reopening of the economy overshadowed lingering worries about the coronavirus pandemic.

The S&P 500 rose 1.2%, climbing above the 3,000-point mark for the first time since March 5 until a burst of selling in the final minutes of trading trimmed its gains. The Dow spent much of the day above the 25,000-point threshold for the first time since March 10, but the late pullback knocked it slightly lower too. The indexes haven’t been at these levels since before widespread business shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus sent the U.S. economy into a sharp skid.

The post-Memorial Day rally followed a strong rise in global markets as more nations push to open their economies. Financial and industrial stocks accounted for much of the gains. Companies that rely on consumer spending also rose broadly. Airlines were big winners as traders welcomed data showing an uptick in air travel during the long holiday weekend.

“We’ve basically wiped out a decade worth of job creation in a month and a half,” an economist says. May’s unemployment figures will probably look even grimmer.

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“That was one of the concerns of the recovery, that people would be hesitant to resume their lives,” said Willie Delwiche, investment strategist at Baird. “This is a stock market that’s looking ahead to the economy improving and maybe moving beyond the lockdown mentality.... Two weeks from now, if you have a spike in cases, then everyone will reconsider things.”

The S&P 500 rose 36.32 points, or 1.2%, to 2,991.77. The index was coming off a solid week and is on track for a second consecutive month of gains. It remains down 11.7% from the all-time high it reached in February.

The Dow climbed 529.95 points, or 2.2%, to 24,995.11. The Nasdaq edged up 15.63 points, or 0.2%, to 9,340.22. The Russell 2000 index of small companies advanced 37.54 points, or 2.8%, to 1,393.07.

Fears of a crushing recession due to the coronavirus sent the S&P 500 into a skid of more than 30% in March. Hopes for a relatively quick rebound and unprecedented moves by the Federal Reserve and Congress to stem the economic pain drove a historic rebound for stocks in April and have bolstered optimism that the market won’t return to the depths seen two months ago.

Fresh optimism about the development of potential vaccines for COVID-19 have also helped lift stocks. Investors are keenly focused on the process of reopening the U.S. economy. Concerns remain that reopening businesses could lead to another surge in infections, potentially hobbling efforts to get the nation’s battered economy growing again.

A couple of economic reports gave traders encouragement Tuesday. The Commerce Department said sales of new U.S. homes inched up 0.6% last month, a surprising gain that hints at the relative financial health of many consumers. Over the past 12 months, sales are down 6.2%. Meanwhile, the Conference Board said its index of consumer confidence ticked up to 86.6 in May from 85.7 in April. The index is still down sharply from February’s 130.7.

Optimism over the prospect that consumers will be eager and able to spend money as more businesses open helped boost travel-related stocks Tuesday. Norwegian Cruise Line climbed 15.3%. Royal Caribbean jumped 14.9%. Carnival rose 12.6%.

Airline stocks soared on indications that air travel is recovering from mid-April lows, although it remains down sharply from pre-pandemic levels. The Transportation Security Administration said about 340,000 people passed through airport checkpoints on Memorial Day. That’s down 86.4% from last year’s holiday, but it’s the smallest percentage drop in U.S. air travel since March 22.

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UBS upgraded Southwest Airlines to “buy” from “neutral” on better prospects for a recovery in domestic travel. Shares of all six leading U.S. carriers — Delta, American, United, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue — jumped more than 12%.

Financial stocks led Wall Street’s rally. The sector gained 5%. It’s still down 25.3% so far this year.

Bond yields were broadly higher, another sign of optimism. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, a benchmark for interest rates on many consumer loans, rose to 0.70% from 0.66%.

Reassuring comments by the head of China’s central bank helped spur buying in global markets. France’s CAC 40 climbed 1.5%, while Germany’s DAX gained 1%. The FTSE 100 in Britain, which was closed on Monday, rose 1.2%. Asian markets closed higher.

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Also on Tuesday, the New York Stock Exchange opened its trading floor for the first time since mid-March. It let a limited number of traders return to the floor, requiring them to adhere to social distancing guidelines and wear masks. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo rang the opening bell.


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