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Tuesday September 29th, 2020 1:13PM

Stocks struggle to a mixed finish after early rally sputters

By The Associated Press
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The major U.S. stock indexes closed unevenly Thursday after an early rally gave way to a mostly sideways day of trading on Wall Street.

Losses in health care stocks mostly offset gains in industrial companies, banks and elsewhere in the market. Insurers UnitedHealth Group and Anthem led the sector's slide. Technology stocks also fell.

The listless day of trading came as investors looked ahead to Friday, when major banks, including Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, are due to report their first-quarter results. The banks will pave the way for a potentially market-moving wave of company earnings reports the next few weeks.

"For the better part here of five trading days we've been up and down just a little bit, and not really making any progress," said Rob Haworth, senior investment strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. "A lot of that is you're really waiting for earnings season."

The S&P 500 index eked out a tiny gain, adding 0.11 points, or less than 0.1%, to 2,888.32.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 14.11 points, or 0.1%, to 26,143.05. The Nasdaq composite slid 16.88 points, or 0.2%, to 7,947.36. The Russell 2000 gave up 2.41 points, or 0.2%, to 1,579.14.

More stocks rose than fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Major European indexes closed mostly higher.

Stocks initially moved modestly higher as investors welcomed an encouraging report from the Labor Department, which said applications for unemployment aid declined last week to 196,000, the lowest level since October 1969.

By midmorning, the major stock indexes turned slightly lower, however, and then held steady for much of the day before a late-afternoon flurry of buying left the S&P 500 with a minuscule gain. The index is up 15.2% for the year.

The stock indexes' mixed performance Thursday means the market gave back some of the ground it won a day earlier, after minutes from the latest Federal Reserve meeting showed that the majority of officials want to keep interest rates unchanged in 2019. Investors want the central bank to take a more laid-back approach to avoid triggering a market slump.

Beyond the Fed, traders are squarely focused on company earnings reports the next few weeks in hopes of gleaning fresh clues about the trajectory of the economy and corporate profits.

Analysts expect companies in the S&P 500 to report a 3.3% drop in earnings per share from a year earlier, which would be the first decline since the spring of 2016. The expected drop in profits is due almost entirely to weaker profit margins.

Quarterly results from a couple of companies this week have been encouraging.

Fastenal led gains in industrial stocks Thursday after the maker of fasteners, nails and other hardware delivered better-than-expected quarterly results. The stock climbed 5%. Delta led a rally in airline stocks Wednesday after reporting solids results.

Financial stocks also held on to their early gains Thursday. Unum Group rose 2.7%.

Health insurers were among the biggest decliners as the health care sector took heavy losses. UnitedHealth Group fell 4.3%, Anthem dropped 4.1%, Humana slid 2.2% and Cigna lost 2.55. The sector is up 4.8% this year, lagging the S&P 500 other 10 sectors.

"Health care was really strong last year then started to roll over and has been falling out of favor among the sectors," said Willie Delwiche, investment strategist at Baird. "It has the worst year-to-date performance, and that was prior to today's weakness."

Tesla slid 2.8% following news reports that the electric maker would hold off on a key battery plant expansion in the U.S. The stalled expansion follows Tesla's report earlier in April of a first-quarter slowdown in production and demand.

Bed Bath & Beyond, which has been struggling recently and is being targeted by a number of activist investors, slumped 8.8% in heavy trading after the company reported a drop in a key sales measure that was worse than analysts were expecting.

Two technology companies hit the market running Thursday. PagerDuty soared 59.4% in its first day of trading as a public company, and Tufin Software surged 36.4%. The Israel-based company provides network security software.

After trading closed, ride-hailing giant Uber filed paperwork to make its own highly anticipated initial public offering of stock.

Bond prices fell. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury rose to 2.50% from 2.47% late Wednesday.

Energy futures ended broadly lower. Benchmark U.S. crude fell 1.6% to settle at $63.58 a barrel. Brent crude lost 1.3% to close at $70.83 a barrel.

Wholesale gasoline slid 1.9% to $2.03 a gallon, heating oil gave up 1% to $2.07 a gallon and natural gas dropped 1.3% to $2.66 per 1,000 cubic feet.

The dollar rose to 111.66 yen from 110.96 yen on Wednesday. The euro weakened to $1.1258 from $1.1271.

Gold fell 1.6% to $1,293.30 an ounce, silver slid 2.5% to $14.87 an ounce and copper dropped 1.3% to $2.89 a pound.

___

AP Business Writer Damian J. Troise contributed to this report.

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP Business, AP Business - Corporate News, AP Business - Economy, AP Business - Financial Markets
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