U.S. stocks fend off selling pressures

The Dow is off slightly on the day, after falling nearly 130 points at the open. Decent reports on jobless claims and new-home sales helped.

By Charley Blaine May 23, 2013 4:31PM
Trading floor (© Corbis)For a stock market that was supposed to be collapsing, the U.S. market held  its own on Thursday. The market had opened sharply lower, with the Dow Jones industrials ($INDU) off as many as 127 points, in large part because of a shockingly big sell-off in Japan.

But stocks rebounded off those lows because reports on the U.S. economy -- jobless claims and new-home sales -- were better than expected.

Plus, Federal Reserve officials were running around -- trying to assure investors around the world that they weren't about to pare back or stop their big bond-buying program any time soon. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had made the point repeatedly in Congressional testimony, but minutes from the Fed's April meeting suggested a change might come starting in June.

If there was a downside to Thursday's market it was the major averages have been unable to move into the black, or move into the black and stay there.

The Dow finished the day down 13 points to 15,295. On Wednesday, the blue chips hit an all-time intraday high of 15,542.40 before selling off and ending the day at 15,307.

The Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) was off 5 points to 1,651, and the Nasdaq Composite Index ($COMPX) was struggling with a 4-point loss to 3,459. The S&P 500 had fallen to as low as 1,634 and the Nasdaq to 3,423 right after the open, and slowly worked their way higher for the rest of the day.

These are hardly numbers that suggest the U.S. market was in danger of imminent collapse. It does reinforce, however, the opinion of many that it's overbought and due for a pullback.

The U.S. performance was better than how markets in Europe fared. Most indexes were down 2% or more. Japan's Nikkei-225 Index ($JP:N225) dropped 1,143 points to 14,484, in part a reaction to Wednesday's late selling in the United States. But a larger influence was a decline in the HSBC China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index to a seven-month low of 49.6 in May. That suggested a contraction in activity.

The real world is suggesting the domestic economy is surviving sequestration for now. Jobless claims fell to a seasonally adjusted 340,000; analysts had expected around 348,000. Claims have been below 400,000 for 26 straight weeks, and they're down 49% from their peak level of 670,000 in the week ending March 28, 2009.

Continuing claims -- people still getting unemployment insurance -- were at a seasonally adjusted 2.91 million in the week ending May 11. That was the best level since March 15, 2008, and down 56% from a peak of 6.61 million the week ending May 30, 2009.

New-home sales hit a seasonally adjusted 454,000 units in April, up 2.3% from March and 29% above a year-ago levels, the Commerce Department says. That adds to the evidence of a housing recovery in its early stages.

On Tuesday, the National Association of Realtors estimated April existing-home sales at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.97 million units, up 0.6% from March and 9.7% from a year ago. It was also the best sales rate since November 2009's 5.44 million units.

Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), up $3.70 to $24.92, was the top performer among the 30 Dow stocks and among S&P 500 stocks. Earnings were better than expected, and the company boosted its guidance. Only 10 Dow stocks were higher, however, along with 202 S&P 500 stocks and 42 stocks in the Nasdaq-100 Index ($NDX). The index was off 8 points to 2,991.

Homebuilders were higher because of the new-home sales report. Technology shares were mostly higher because of Hewlett-Packard. Airlines gained as crude oil (-CL) in New York fell to $94.25, down 3 cents. Crude had dropped to as low as $92.21 as the Japanese market tanked.

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