The S&P 500 ended little changed on Thursday as growing anxiety over a global economic slowdown offset upbeat data and investors waited for earnings season to kick into high gear.
In choppy trading, the Nasdaq and the Dow closed lower, with healthcare stocks weighing on all three major domestic stock indexes.
According to reports released by the Labor Department on Thursday, new jobless claims fell to their lowest level since 1969, while in March, producer prices made their largest gain since October.
The upbeat data could ease worries of a sharp global economic downturn reaching U.S. shores, a concern reflected in minutes from the Federal Reserve’s March meeting released on Wednesday.
As reporting season begins, the consensus if for S&P 500 first-quarter earnings numbers to be about 2.5 percent lower year-on-year, their first contraction since 2016.
Financial stocks were up 0.6 percent ahead of a string of earnings reports from six major banks. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo are due to report on Friday, followed by Citigroup and Goldman Sachs on Monday. Bank of America and Morgan Stanley are scheduled for Tuesday.
Of the 11 major sectors of the S&P 500, seven closed in the black.
Healthcare stocks were by far the worst performer, falling 1.2 percent a day after Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a “Medicare for All” plan to Congress, and the Senate Finance Committee concluded a hearing to discuss the role pharmacy benefit managers play in drug pricing.
UnitedHealth Group Inc weighed heaviest on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, falling 4.3 percent.
U.S. Steel fell 3.2 percent after Bank of America Merrill Lynch cut its rating on the stock to “underperform.” Peers AK Steel Holding and Steel Dynamics were down 8.3 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.
Home furnishings retailer Bed Bath & Beyond fell 8.8 percent as its bleak first-quarter profits raised doubts about its turnaround plan.
Shares of Lyft reversed course, rising 1.5 percent. Still, the stock is currently trading about 15 percent below its $72 offer price since its March 29 debut, casting a shadow over rival Uber Technologies’ impending IPO.
Approximately 6.00 billion shares changed hands on the major domestic equity exchanges, as compared to the 7.17 billion share average over the past 20 trading days.
The Day’s Economic Data
The number of new applications for unemployment benefits fell to a 49-1/2-year low last week, pointing to sustained labor market strength that could temper expectations of a sharp slowdown in economic growth.
Other data on Thursday indicated producer prices increased by the most in five months in March due in no small way to a sharp increase in the price of gasoline. At the same time the underlying prices remained soft, the latest indication of tame inflation pressures that strengthened the Federal Reserve’s decision to suspend further interest rate increases this year despite tight labor market conditions.
According to a report released by the Labor Department on Thursday morning, initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell by 8,000 claims to a seasonally adjusted 196,000 claims for the week ended April 6 That made it the lowest level of claims since early October 1969. Claims have now declined for four straight weeks.
The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell by 7,000 claims to 207,000 claims last week, the lowest level since early December 1969.
The labor market is the main pillar of support for the economy, which appears to have lost momentum in the first quarter as the stimulus from the $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades and a trade war between China and the United States, combined with softening global demand, hurt exports.
Nonfarm payrolls increased by 196,000 jobs in March, well above the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The unemployment rate is at 3.8 percent, close to the 3.7 percent Federal Reserve officials project it will be by the end of the year.
In a second report on Thursday, the Labor Department indicated that its producer price index for final demand rose 0.6 percent in March, the largest increase since last October. The PPI edged up 0.1 percent in February.
In the 12 months through March, the PPI rose 2.2 percent after advancing 1.9 percent in the 12 months through February.
A key gauge of underlying producer price pressures that excludes food, energy and trade services was unchanged last month after ticking up 0.1 percent in February. The so-called core PPI increased 2.0 percent in the 12 months through March. That was the smallest annual increase since August 2017 and followed a 2.3 percent rise in February.
Data on Wednesday showed consumer prices rose by the most in 14 months in March, driven by more expensive gasoline. However, core inflation remained muted amid a decline in the cost of apparel.
Slowing domestic and global growth are keeping inflation contained. Wage inflation has also been moderate despite a tight labor market.
Minutes of the Fed’s March 19-20 policy meeting published on Wednesday described inflation as “muted,” though officials expected it to rise to or near the Fed’s 2 percent target. The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, is currently at 1.8 percent.
The minutes showed some Fed officials believed the benign price pressures could be the result of low inflation expectations and also an indication that there was still slack in the labor market despite the very low unemployment rate.
Last month, wholesale energy prices rose 5.6 percent, with gasoline prices up 16.0 percent, the most since August 2009. Energy prices rose 1.8 percent in February.
Gasoline accounted for over 60 percent of the 1.0 percent rise in goods prices last month. Goods prices increased 0.4 percent in February. Wholesale food prices rose 0.3 percent in March, reversing a 0.3 percent drop in the prior month. Core goods prices rose 0.2 percent after edging up 0.1 percent in February.
The cost of services increased 0.3 percent in March after being unchanged in the prior month. Prices for healthcare services fell 0.2 percent last month after rising 0.3 percent in February. The cost of hospital outpatient services fell by the most since July 2014. Those healthcare costs feed into the core PCE price index.