Trader Peter Tuchman works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. Stocks are opening higher Friday as U.S. markets try to maintain the momentum from a late-day rally on Thursday. (AP Photo | Richard Drew)

After Intense Turbulence, U.S. Markets Fluctuate Between Small Losses And Gains

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Investors could not seem to make up their minds today as U.S. stocks fluctuated between small losses and small gains with no clear direction. Trading was light on the next to the last trading day of the year.

The Dow was up more than 180 points, about three-quarters of 1 percent, while the broader S&P 500 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq showed slightly larger percentage increases.

On Thursday, the Dow saw a dizzying swing of more than 870 points. Despite being in negative territory most of the day, it rallied about 90 minutes before the close and finished the day 260 points up — a little more than 1 percent.

The day before, the index saw its largest single-day point gain ever. It surged 1,086 points, a gain of nearly 5 percent.

Despite those gains, the Dow and S&P 500 are on track to have their worst December since 1931.

New data sent conflicting messages to investors this week. On one hand, consumers spent heavily this holiday season — U.S. retail sales were up more than 5 percent over last year, according to a Wednesday report.

“We started the week with pessimism as widespread as I’ve seen since the great financial crisis in 2008,” Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Wealth Advisors, said. “So I think with investors’ expectations so negative, any positive news was taken as great news.”

The next morning, consumer confidence dipped to its lowest point in five months. The measure is an “important ingredient in how the market behaves, at least over shorter-term periods,” Ablin said.

Most data points have the economy chugging along: The job market is holding strong, with unemployment at the lowest level in nearly 50 years. Economic growth is also holding up well — gross domestic product expanded at a sturdy 3.5 percent in the third quarter.

But despite this, investors have grown anxious amid U.S.- China trade tensions, new signs of a global economic softening and renewed friction between President Trump and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. Last week the Fed hiked interest rates for the fourth time this year, a move Trump had argued against.

Year to date, the Dow remains down about 6 percent. The S&P 500 is down a similar amount, while the Nasdaq is down about 4 percent on the year.

“A lot of what I worried about for 2019 actually transpired in 2018,” Ablin said.

The negative market news “sets us up for incrementally positive 2019,” he said. “I think we still have some issues to work out in the first half of the year.”

That’s mainly reconciling the U.S.-China trade spat and watching Brexit, he said.

“Perhaps after some uncertainty in the first quarter, maybe we get our footing sometime in March or April,” Ablin said. “And I think, then, the rest of 2019 can end the year on a positive note.”

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