U.S. blue-chip stocks eked out small gains Monday in the lightest trading volume all year, but other major indexes finished flat as the technology sector sagged. The Dow Jones Industrial Average added 23.31 points, or 0.19%, to finish at 12400, inching into its tenth advance in thirteen sessions and to the highest close since June 5, 2008. The measure had touched a nearly three-year intraday high Friday. Johnson & Johnson led the blue chips as it gained 1.1%. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. added 1% on a report that it is considering selling groceries online.
The gains were kept in check by Hewlett-Packard Co., which dropped 1.6%, and Intel Corp., which lost 1.2%. Technology stocks were broadly lower after Gartner Inc. analysts made cautious comments on semiconductor supply-chain problems in the wake of Japan's earthquake. The Nasdaq Composite shed 0.41 point, or 0.01%, to 2789.19, its first drop in five sessions. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index edged up 0.46 point, or 0.03%, to 1332.87, led by the materials and health-care sectors. Fewer than 3.3 billion shares changed hands in NYSE Composite volume, the lowest level since New Year's Eve. Many investors opted to wait for direction from the Federal Reserve, whose docket this week included scheduled Monday evening remarks by chairman Ben Bernanke.
European markets eked out a small gain Monday as deal news lifted some stocks including French chemicals manufacturer Rhodia SA, while banks were mostly lower as capital worries continued to weigh on the sector. The Stoxx Europe 600 index ended up 0.1% at 280.26. The biggest mover on the Stoxx 600 was Rhodia, which surged more than 48% in Paris after agreeing to be bought by Belgian chemicals group Solvay SA for EUR3.4 billion($4.8 billion). Shares in Solvay gained 2.3%. In other deal news, shares in U.K. mobile-network operator Vodafone rose as much as 2.2%, before giving up gains to end the session with a 0.1% loss. The group agreed to sell its 44% stake in French mobile operator SFR to media giant Vivendi SA for EUR7.95 billion. Vivendi shares gained 0.6%. The stock was one of the biggest risers on the French CAC 40 index, which slipped 0.3% to 4,042.92. The index was weighed down by a 2.8% drop for banking group Societe Generale. Bank stocks were mostly lower across Europe as worries over capital levels and potential regulatory reforms continued to make investors nervous. Italian lenders were among the weakest performers in the sector. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA fell 1.9% and UniCredit SpA dropped 1.7%. Intesa Sanpaolo SpA shares rose 1%. The Italian FTSE MIB index edged up 0.2% to 22,007.80. Irish banks continued to rally following the publication of the country's bank-stress tests. Shares in Bank of Ireland rose 9.3% and Allied Irish Banks PLC added 9.5%. Among the other main markets, the U.K.'s FTSE 100 rose 0.1% to close at 6,016.98 and the German DAX 30 index fell 0.1% to 7,175.33. Shares in generator rental group Aggreko PLC were the strongest performer on the FTSE 100, rising 5.3% after the company said it's agreed to supply 200 megawatts of emergency-generation capacity to Japan's Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Most Asian markets clinched gains Monday, with copper miners boosting Australian shares after China's Minmetals Resources Ltd. launched a takeover offer for Equinox Minerals Ltd., while Japanese stocks were supported by a weakened yen. Japan's Nikkei Stock Average finished 0.1% higher at 9718.89 after a choppy trading session, Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index rose 1.5% to 24150.58 and India's Sensex rose 1.3% to 19701.73. Markets in China and Taiwan were closed for public holidays. Stocks of Japanese exporters struggled to hang on to gains during the session. Caution about how the March 11 natural disasters would affect corporate earnings tempered market sentiment despite the earlier yen's fall against the dollar and the euro, and upbeat U.S. jobs data for March. Canon Inc. ended unchanged and Toyota Motor Corp. fell 0.5%, both finishing well off the day's highs. But Nikon Corp. added 0.5% and Mazda Motor Corp. rose 1.1% as the U.S. dollar hovered around the Y84 level. The broad regional advance was underpinned by the stronger-than-expected U.S. jobs data and gains on Wall Street Friday. Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing was the best performing blue chip in Hong Kong, rising 5.3%. HK Exchanges is generally seen as a proxy for the Hong Kong market and tends to rise ahead of any index rally. Shares of Minmetals rose 2.4% after news of its offer for Equinox. Cnooc Ltd. added 1.7% in Hong Kong, getting a lift from rising crude-oil prices. In Seoul, oil-refining stocks fell sharply on news that SK Energy Co. will cut its gasoline and diesel prices following recent pressure from the government to help curb inflation. Their fall weighed on the Kospi in Seoul, dragging the benchmark 0.2% lower to 2,115.87. Shares of SK Innovation Co. dropped 10%, while S-Oil Corp. slid 5.6%.
Base metals closed mostly higher on the London Metal Exchange Monday, supported by a generally stronger euro and a more confident market mood, though gains were capped by profit-taking and a lack of activity on the back of a two-day public holiday in key-metals consumer China. Oil futures jumped to their highest level in 2 1/2 years Monday, with Brent crude surpassing $120 a barrel, as a drawn out fight in a Libyan oil town squashed hopes that the conflict might end soon. Light, sweet crude for May delivery settled 53 cents, or 0.5%, higher at $108.47 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, its highest settlement since Sept. 22, 2008. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange soared $2.36, or 2%, to settle at $121.06, its highest settlement since Aug. 1, 2008. Oil prices advanced as Libyan rebels reclaimed much of the key oil town of Brega on Libya's coast Monday, after losing the city to forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi over the weekend. The back and forth battles have stoked worries of a prolonged conflict. Few observers expect Libya's 1.3 million barrels a day of oil exports to return to the market soon. Gold futures rose and silver hit a fresh 31-year peak as investors sought to hedge against the threat of inflation amid rising oil prices. The most actively traded gold contract, for June delivery, gained $4.10, or 0.3%, to settle at $1,433.00 a troy ounce on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange. The nearby April contract also rose $4.10, to $1,432.20. Comex May silver rose 76.2 cents, or 2%, to settle at $38.494, the highest finish for a most active contract since Feb. 12, 1980.
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