After showing considerable uncertainty throughout a great deal of Thursday's trading session, stocks ultimately ended the day mostly higher. The uncertainty followed a combination of some mixed corporate news and some disappointing economic reports.
In economic news, a report released by the Labor Department showed that first-time claims for unemployment benefits climbed roughly in line with economist estimates in the week ended April 18th. Jobless claims rose to 640,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 613,000.
At the same time, the Labor Department said that continuing claims in the week ended April 11th rose to another new record high of 6.14 million from the preceding week's revised level of 6.04 million.
Peter Boockvar, equity strategist at Miller Tabak, said that the continued increase in continuing claims highlights the difficulty people are having in finding new jobs even though the pace of firings has stabilized.
Additionally, the National Association of Realtors released its report on existing home sales in the month of March, showing that the annual rate of sales fell 3.0 percent to 4.57 million. Economists had expected existing home sales to slip to a 4.65 million unit rate.
While sales fell by more than expected, Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, suggested that the market appears to be stabilizing with modest monthly ups and downs. Yum added that first-time buyers are driving the market.
On the corporate front, Apple (AAPL) reported net income for the second quarter of $1.33 per share, compared to $1.16 per share for the year-ago quarter. Revenue for the second quarter rose to $8.16 billion from $7.51 billion in the prior year quarter.
Analysts' consensus estimates had called for Apple to earn $1.09 per share on revenue of $7.96 billion for the second quarter. The better than expected results were primarily due to strong iPhone sales.
Meanwhile, UPS (UPS) reported adjusted first quarter earnings of $0.52 per share, down from $0.87 per share last year and $0.04 below analyst estimates. Revenue also failed to meet analysts' target, falling nearly 14 percent to $10.94 billion.
In other news, President Obama said he would push for a law to provide strong and reliable protections for the millions of Americans who have credit cards after meeting with chief executives of the credit-card lending industry.
Obama said he wants legislation that will prevent consumers from facing a sudden, surprising rise in fees, and that companies must make it easier for people to do comparison shopping.
Additionally, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo unveiled information Thursday, showing that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department put significant pressure on Bank of America to go through with its merger with Merrill Lynch.
The major averages all moved higher going into the close after bouncing back and forth across the unchanged line for much of the session. The Dow closed up 70.49 points or 0.9 percent at 7,957.06, the Nasdaq closed up 6.09 points or 0.4 percent at 1,652.21 and the S&P 500 closed up 8.37 points or 1.0 percent at 851.92.
After contributing to a late-day pullback in the previous session, banking stocks helped to lead the markets higher going into the close. The S&P Banks Index ended the session up 6.4 percent, although it remains stuck in a recent trading range.
Wells Fargo (WFC) turned in one of the banking sector's best performances, closing up 10.5 percent. PNC Financial (PNC) and US Bancorp (USB) also posted notable gains.
Brokerage stocks also showed a strong upward move in the latter part of the trading day, driving the Amex Securities Broker/Dealer Index up 3.4 percent. With the gain, the index ended the session at its best closing level in well over five months.
The upward move by the broader markets also reflected significant strength in the gold, real estate, railroad, and oil sectors. Gold stocks benefited from a notable increase by the price of the precious metal, with gold for June delivery closing up $14.10 at $906.60 an ounce.
On the other hand, healthcare-related stocks remained under pressure, with the Morgan Stanley Healthcare Provider Index and the Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor Index closing down 2.8 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively.
Electronic storage, biotechnology, and steel stocks also posted notable losses on the day, helping to limit the upside for the broader markets.
A slim majority of the Dow components ended the session in positive territory, contributing to the gain posted by the blue chip index. Reflecting the strength in the banking sector, Bank of America showed a strong upward move, closing up 6.8 percent.
Credit card giant American Express (AXP) also turned in a strong performance, ending the session up 7.9 percent. The gain by AmEx came ahead of the release of its first quarter results after the close of trading.
JP Morgan (JPM), Alcoa (AA), and Chevron (CVX) also showed strong upward moves, helping to push the Dow firmly into positive territory.
Meanwhile, shares of General Motors (GM) saw considerable weakness on the day, closing down 4.1 percent. Home Depot (HD) and Citigroup (C) also posted notable losses.
In overseas trading, stock markets across the Asia-Pacific region closed mostly higher on Thursday after ending the previous session mixed. Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 Index showed a strong upward move, closing up 1.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the major European markets closed below the unchanged line after some earlier uncertainty. The U.K.'s FTSE 100 Index finished the session down 0.3 percent, while the German DAX Index and the French CAC 40 Index fell 1.2 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively.
In the bond market, treasuries moved higher over the course of the trading day after showing some uncertainty, driving the yield on the benchmark 10-year note down 3.7 basis points to 2.927 percent.
Microsoft (MSFT) will likely be in focus on Friday after reporting its quarterly results after the closing bell today. Additionally, Ford Motor (F) and Xerox Corp. (XRX) are among the companies scheduled to report their results before the start of trading.
In economic news, durable goods orders data is due to be released at 8:30 a.m. on Friday. ET. Housing will also remain in focus, as new home sales data is due at 10 a.m. ET.
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