Stocks tick up, despite dismal data, ahead of Biden speech

NEW YORK (AP): U.S. stocks are ticking higher Thursday, despite a dismal report on the number of layoffs sweeping the country, as investors continue to balance their hopes for a better economy ahead against its current pain.

The S&P 500 was 0.2% higher in early trading, the latest listless movements in its lull since setting a record last week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 125 points, or 0.4%, at 31,185, as of 9:50 a.m. Eastern time, and the Nasdaq composite was 0.4% higher.

Investors are waiting to hear later in the day from President-elect Joe Biden, who’s expected to detail his plan bolster the economy. Anticipation is high that it will include bigger cash payments for most Americans and other stimulus. That, plus the continued rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, has Wall Street expecting a powerful rebound for the economy later this year.

Another discouraging report underscored on Thursday how much damage the economy is taking as the pandemic worsens. Last week, 965,000 more U.S. workers filed for unemployment benefits last week as businesses shutter and lay off employees. That’s up sharply from the prior week’s tally of 784,000, and it was much worse than economists expected.

Such discouraging numbers could be fodder for critics of the stock market, who say prices have soared too high and look too expensive. But several analysts said they expect investors to continue to focus on hopes for a brighter future as temperatures warm and more people get vaccines.

“Further, a bleaker than expected jobs report translates into a greater likelihood for a full-throated stimulus package, which perversely acts as a tailwind for the market,” said Mike Loewengart, managing director of investment strategy at E-Trade Financial.

Stocks of companies that would benefit in particular from a healthier, reopening economy were leading the way.

Smaller companies were jumping more than the rest of the market, as they often do when investors are upgrading their expectations for the economy. The Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks rose 1.3%, continuing its much better performance than the big stocks in the S&P 500 so far this year.

Travel-related companies were also clawing back some of their steep losses from last year, including airlines and cruise-ship operators.

Delta Air Lines rose 3.4% even though it said it lost more money during the last three months of 2020 than analysts expected. The airline said it sees business turning higher through 2021 as vaccinations become more widespread and offices reopen. By the spring, it expects to stop burning more cash than it brings in each day.

Longer-term Treasury yields were inching higher or holding steady. The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 1.09% from 1.07% late Wednesday.

It’s been climbing sharply recently on expectations that COVID-19 vaccines and the soon-to-be Democratically controlled Washington will lead to more federal borrowing, economic growth and inflation. The 10-year yield was at 0.90% less two weeks ago, before two runoff elections in Georgia gave control of the Senate to Democrats.

One concern in the market has been about how much higher yields can go before upsetting the stock market. Low rates have been one of the main underpinnings for the market’s march to records even though the economy is still struggling.

Low rates mean bonds are paying less in interest, which can push some investors away from bonds and into stocks. They generally make investors more willing to push prices for stocks up even faster than their earnings are rising. Now, investors are paying the highest prices since the dot-com bubble was deflating in 2000 for S&P 500 stocks versus their earnings over the prior 12 months.

That has investors waiting to hear from the Federal Reserve, which has said it plans to keep short-term rates low even after inflation rises passes its 2% target. Fed Chair Jerome Powell will be speaking at an online event hosted by Princeton University Thursday afternoon.

In European stock markets, indexes were pushing modestly higher. Germany’s DAX returned 0.3%, and France’s CAC 40 added 0.2%. The FTSE 100 in London added 0.5%.

In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.8% after a report showed strong growth in machinery orders in December, suggesting robust corporate spending despite a marked worsening of the pandemic.

South Korea’s Kospi inched up 0.1%, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 0.9% and stocks in Shanghai fell 0.9%.