U.S. stocks turned lower Thursday after a morning of choppy trading following a week of sudden, jarring shifts.
The S&P 500 was down 0.5% in midday trading, after earlier jerking from a gain of 0.8% to a loss of 0.7%. It follows up on a wild stretch where the index careened from its worst three-day slump since June to its best day in nearly three months.
Tech stocks have been at the center of the market’s swings, hurt by criticism that their recession-defying surge in recent months was overdone. The Nasdaq, which is full of tech stocks, was down 0.2% after shedding an early gain. But stocks within it were bouncing up and down, and it’s still below its record set last week after dropping 10% from last Thursday through Tuesday.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 146 points, or 0.5%, at 27,796, as of 12:53 p.m. Eastern time.
The market will likely lack any solid direction for the next few months as investors weigh several key issues, said Rod von Lipsey, managing director at UBS Private Wealth Management.
“Two things everybody is waiting for: Who is going to win the election, and are we going to find a vaccine for the virus?” he said. “Those two questions are impossible for us to answer in this particular quarter.”
He said big investors are either waiting on the sidelines or in a neutral position on expectations that markets will stay volatile through the uncertainty.
“We’re not all sure where the economy is going to head from here,” he said.
Thursday’s headline economic report showed that 884,000 workers applied for unemployment benefits last week. The number was flat from last week’s tally, which was revised higher, and it’s the lowest it’s been since the number of layoffs began exploding in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But the tally was still higher than economists expected, and it’s an indication that layoffs remain stuck at a dispiritingly high level. Economists called the report disappointing.
A separate report showed that inflation remains very weak at the wholesale level, though it was stronger last month than economists had forecast. The Federal Reserve has said that it’s willing to allow inflation to run higher than its target level before raising interest rates, if inflation had been too low before that. That’s key for investors because low rates can boost stock prices.
Treasury yields held relatively steady following the reports, and the yield on the 10-year note ticked up to 0.71% from 0.70% late Wednesday.
The market’s focus continues to be on big technology stocks, in large part because they’ve grown so big that their movements can move broad market indexes almost by themselves. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google’s parent company alone account for 23% of the S&P 500, for example.
Many analysts say the recent tumult for technology stocks isn’t that surprising given how high they had soared. Apple more than doubled in less than five months through the pandemic, Tesla surged 74.1% last month alone and Zoom Video Communications earlier this month was up nearly 573% for 2020.
While Big Tech is indeed benefiting from the shift to online life that the pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home economy has accelerated, critics said their stocks prices simply shot too high. This past week’s sell-off blew off some of that steam, but analysts question how much selling is left in the pipeline.
Apple rose as much as 2.7% Thursday morning, but it quickly swung to a loss of 0.7%. Tesla was up 4.9% and Zoom, gained 1.8%.
The gains are coming even as the odds grow longer that Congress will be able to deliver more aid to the economy before November’s elections, support that many investors say is crucial after federal unemployment benefits and other stimulus expired. Partisan disagreements on Capitol Hill have kept Congress at a seeming impasse.
Quest Diagnostics rose 3.2% for one of the bigger gains in the S&P 500 after it raised its forecasts for sales and profits this year.
On the losing end were energy producers after the price of crude oil weakened. Occidental Petroleum fell 4.8%, and Devon Energy dropped 4.1%.
European stock markets were dipping. The German DAX lost 0.2%, and the French CAC 40 fell 0.4%. The FTSE 100 in London dropped 0.2%.
Asian markets were mixed. Japan’s Nikkei 225 and South Korea’s Kospi both rose 0.9%. The Hang Seng in Hong Kong slipped 0.6%, and stocks in Shanghai lost 0.6%.
Benchmark U.S. crude slipped 0.8% to $37.75 per barrel. Brent crude, the international standard, dipped 1.2% to $40.32 per barrel.