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Wall Street holds in neutral after wobbly day

A Wall Street sign near the New York Stock Exchange.
Markets worldwide have been showing more apprehension following a tremendous rally for U.S. stocks that began in late March. Above, street signs near the New York Stock Exchange.
(Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images)

Wall Street held at a near-standstill Thursday, with indexes split as caution about rising coronavirus infections in hot spots around the world washed over hopes for a coming economic recovery.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index edged up 0.1% after flip-flopping repeatedly between small gains and losses through the day. Earlier, stocks slipped in European and Asian markets, while Treasury yields faded in another sign of increased caution.

Slightly more stocks fell in the S&P 500 than rose, but the index ended up adding 1.85 points to close at 3,115.34. The Dow Jones industrial average slipped 39.51, or 0.2%, to 26.080.10, and the Nasdaq composite rose 32.52, or 0.3%, to 9,943.05.

Markets worldwide have been showing more apprehension after a tremendous rally for U.S. stocks that began in late March and reached nearly 45% at one point. Surprisingly strong reports on U.S. retail sales and employment have increased hopes recently that the economy can pull out of its recession relatively quickly as governments ease lockdown orders.

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But discouraging numbers on the coronavirus in various U.S. states and elsewhere in the world have dented the optimism. Even if authorities don’t reimpose widespread lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus, the fear is that consumers and businesses could get frightened and pull back on spending. That would damage the fragile improvements that the economy seems to be developing.

A report Thursday showed that the number of U.S. workers filing for unemployment benefits eased for the 11th straight week, down to 1.5 million from nearly 1.6 million. Economists, though, had been expecting a larger decline.

The number of workers who continue to get unemployment benefits also fell slightly. That’s an indication that some employers have begun hiring workers again. But there, too, the improvement wasn’t as healthy as economists had forecast.

One source of support seems to remain constant for markets, though: tremendous aid from central banks. The Bank of England on Thursday increased the size of its bond-buying program to keep interest rates low.

A day earlier, the chairman of the Federal Reserve said it will continue to keep interest rates pinned at nearly zero, as well as purchase bonds in far-ranging corners of the market to support the economy. Huge, unprecedented programs by the Fed and Congress in late March were what helped the S&P 500 halt its plunge of nearly 34% when recession worries were at their height.

The S&P 500 has since shaved its loss to 8%, with recent leadership often coming from companies that would benefit most from a reopening economy.

Such stocks bounced up and down with the overall market Thursday. Cruise operator Carnival fell to an early loss of 6.8% after it reported a net loss of $4.4 billion for its latest quarter. But it later recovered and briefly turned positive before finishing the day 1.4% lower.

Stocks of smaller companies have also tracked with investors’ expectations for the economy, and they likewise swung up and down Thursday. The Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks ended the day virtually unchanged, up just 0.54 of a point to 1,427.08, after earlier bouncing between a gain of 0.9% and a loss of 1%.

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In Europe, German’s DAX lost 0.8% and France’s CAC 40 fell 0.7%. The FTSE 100 in London dropped 0.5%.

In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei 225 slipped 0.4%, South Korea’s Kospi lost 0.4% and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong slipped 0.1%.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 0.69% from 0.73% late Wednesday. It tends to move with investors’ expectations for the economy and inflation.

A barrel of U.S. oil for delivery in July rose 2.3% to settle at $38.84. Brent crude, the international standard, rose 2% to settle at $41.51 a barrel.


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