S&P 500 steady as stimulus hopes build, energy stocks shine

(Reuters) – The S&P 500 was nearly flat on Thursday as investors weighed signs of progress in fiscal stimulus talks against data showing a surge in jobless claims, while energy stocks soared on a sharp jump in oil prices.

FILE PHOTO: A trader wearing a mask reacts at the closing bell, on the first day of in person trading since the closure during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., May 26, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The S&P energy index hit a six-month high as crude prices surged above $50 a barrel for the first time since early March. Oil companies Apache Corp, Occidental Petroleum Corp and Hess Corp jumped between 9.0% and 4.5%.

Investors also awaited Airbnb Inc’s debut, with the home rental firm set to open more than double its initial public offering price of $68 apiece, making its $3.5 billion IPO the biggest by a U.S. operating company in 2020.

The three major stock indexes got a boost after U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said talks between Republican and Democratic senators on COVID-19 relief were making “a lot of progress” with more discussions expected in the day.

“Market is very fixated in anticipation that some type of deal can be made fairly soon,” said Ryan Detrick, chief market strategist at LPL Financial in North Carolina.

The S&P 500 fell as much as 0.7% in early trading after Labor Department data showed the number of Americans filing new jobless claims jumped to a near three-month high last week.

The faltering labor market recovery and the recent surge in COVID-19 infections have piled pressure on policymakers to come up with another rescue package, as most of the financial aid from the government has dried up.

U.S. lawmakers approved a stopgap government funding bill on Wednesday that would provide more time for negotiations, but an agreement has remained elusive due to disagreements over aid to state and local governments and business liability protections.

“The truth is the economy is still going to be a little slow in the first quarter, and the safety that the tech mega-caps can provide is making investors go right back in,” Detrick said.

At 12:09 p.m. ET the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 70.74 points, or 0.24%, to 29,998.07, the S&P 500 lost 2.11 points, or 0.06%, to 3,670.71, and the Nasdaq Composite gained 59.57 points, or 0.48%, to 12,398.52.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq recovered after a steep sell-off in the previous session, supported by gains in Tesla Inc, Netflix Inc, Apple Inc and Amazon.com Inc, all adding about 1% each.

The Dow Jones transportation average, often seen as a barometer of economic health, dropped about 1.4%.

Also in focus was a meeting of outside advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) later in the day, to decide whether to recommend that the agency authorize Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use.

Some officials said vaccinations could begin as soon as this weekend if the FDA consented.

Declining issues matched advancers on the NYSE, while advancing issues outnumbered decliners for a 1.2-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.

The S&P 500 posted eight new 52-week highs and no new low, while the Nasdaq recorded 160 new highs and 17 new lows.

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