Wall Street ekes out gains in rocky start to 2019

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Wall Street edged nominally higher on Wednesday after stumbling out of the starting gate on the first trading day of the new year, as bargain-hunting was offset by fears of a global economic slowdown.

After struggling for direction for much of the session, all three major U.S. stock indexes closed in positive territory. Whether those gains would hold in the days ahead, however, was cast into doubt after Apple Inc (AAPL.O) slashed its sales outlook after the market closed, sending equity index futures tumbling in afterhours activity.

Apple’s stock dropped 8 percent in extended trading after the news, while shares of its suppliers also weakened and S&P 500 e-mini futures ESv1 slid around 0.5 percent, signaling that Wednesday’s modest advance was likely to be unwound when the market reopens on Thursday.

As 2019 gets under way with the worst year for U.S. stocks in a decade in the rear-view mirror, some analysts had been looking for a “January effect,” where investors are pulled back to the table.

“There’s a lack of direction,” said Ben Phillips, chief investment officer at Eventshares in Newport Beach, CA, earlier on Wednesday. “Next week we might have a better read on the January effect.”

“(The stock market is) really sentiment-led right now,” Phillips added. “It feels sentiment is winning over fundamentals.”

Stocks started the session lower after separate reports showed a deceleration in factory activity in China and the euro zone, indicating that the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China was taking a toll on global manufacturing.

Energy .SPNY stocks led the S&P 500’s advance and the sector was the index’s biggest percentage gainer, buoyed by a 2.4 percent jump in crude prices. The group was the worst performing S&P sector in 2018.

Gains were offset by healthcare .SPXHC and so-called defensive sectors, such as real estate .SPLRCR, utilities .SPLRCU and consumer staples .SPLRCS.

A trader looks at price monitors as he works on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, New York, U.S., January 2, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Healthcare companies provided the biggest drag on the S&P 500 and the Dow.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI rose 18.78 points, or 0.08 percent, to 23,346.24, the S&P 500 .SPX gained 3.18 points, or 0.13 percent, to 2,510.03 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC added 30.66 points, or 0.46 percent, to 6,665.94.

Of the 11 major sectors in the S&P 500, seven closed in positive territory.

Banks got a boost from Barclays, as the broker wrote in a research note that the sector could outperform the S&P this year. The Dow Jones Industrial average was led higher with gains from Goldman Sachs (GS.N) and JPMorgan (JPM.N).

Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) delivered fewer-than-expected Model 3 sedans in the fourth quarter and cut U.S. prices. The electric automaker’s shares slid 6.8 percent.

General Electric Co (GE.N) jumped 6.3 percent in heavy trading as bargain hunters bought the stock in the wake of its over 50-percent plunge in 2018.

In the coming weeks, the fourth-quarter reporting period will be underway. Analysts see S&P 500 companies posting profit gains of 15.8 percent, significantly smaller than the third quarter’s 28.4 percent advance.

Investors look to Thursday’s PMI report on U.S. factory activity, and the Labor Department’s payrolls data on Friday, to gauge the health of what has been a fairly robust U.S. economy.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 2.10-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 2.42-to-1 ratio favored advancers.

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The S&P 500 posted no new 52-week highs and 4 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 9 new highs and 58 new lows.

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 7.80 billion shares, compared to the 9.18 billion average for the full session over the last 20 trading days.

Reporting by Stephen Culp, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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