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Stocks Edge Up as Investors Parse Trade Headlines

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12/05/2019 | 04:44pm EST

By Paul J. Davies and Karen Langley

U.S. stocks edged higher Thursday as investors parsed the latest headlines on the trade dispute with China and looked ahead to Friday's jobs report.

The S&P 500 rose 0.2% at the 4 p.m. ET close, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 0.1%, or 28 points. The Nasdaq Composite inched up less than 0.1%.

Trade-related news has driven markets this week. China again offered reassurance Thursday on the state of trade talks between the world's two largest economies, with a spokesman for China's Commerce Ministry saying the negotiating teams have maintained close communications.

That followed comments from President Trump who had suggested earlier in the week that the talks could continue well into next year, spooking investors and pushing major indexes lower. Mr. Trump later said the talks were going "very well."

Investors have been watching the negotiations particularly closely with the approach of the next wave of proposed tariff increases, which are due to go into effect Dec. 15.

"I think you'll see more volatility around trade war coming up as this December 15 deadline looms," said Sandy Villere, portfolio manager at the Villere Balanced Fund.

Mr. Villere said he has watched trade-related market drops for opportunities to buy particular stocks whose prices have been pushed down. He said his fund added shares of ON Semiconductor earlier this year.

Although major U.S. stock indexes have declined so far this week, they have posted double-digit gains for the year. The S&P 500 has climbed 24% in 2019.

Sébastien Galy, senior macro strategist at Nordea Asset Management, speculated that by the end of next week, "Trump will be willing to say that tariff increases are unnecessary because talks have progressed."

Meanwhile, fresh economic data Thursday showed the number of Americans applying for first-time unemployment benefits fell last week, declining to a level lower than that expected by economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal.

Investors will closely watch Friday's nonfarm payrolls data for additional insights into the health of the U.S. jobs market. The employment figures could turn weaker given the slowdown in corporate investment spending and the weakening in new job openings reported earlier this week.

"It's possible we start to see an easing in the jobs market," Mr. Galy said.

As broad stock indexes showed muted moves, earnings reports drove swings in individual stocks. Shares of fashion retailer Express jumped 26% after it reported third-quarter sales that beat expectations. Shares of Five Below rose 4.4% after the discount retailer beat estimates for the third quarter.

Michaels shares fell 13% after the crafts retailer reported a drop in profit. Shares of Brown-Forman fell 6.4% after the maker of Jack Daniel's whiskey lowered its guidance for growth in underlying operating income.

Among the sectors in the S&P 500, materials and financials led the way, while shares of consumer-staples and energy companies lost ground.

In Asia, the Hang Seng Index gained 0.6%, while the Shanghai Composite rose 0.7%.

The British pound continued its rally of recent days on rising expectations of a Conservative Party victory in next week's general election. The pound gained 0.4% to trade at $1.316, putting it on track for its highest close since May.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury was 1.798%, up from 1.781% Wednesday.

Write to Paul J. Davies at paul.davies@wsj.com and Karen Langley at karen.langley@wsj.com

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
CHINA-SHANGHAI COMP 0.05% 3075.5 End-of-day quote.0.30%
DJ INDUSTRIAL 0.17% 29348.1 Delayed Quote.2.84%
HANG SENG 0.66% 29007.9 Real-time Quote.2.90%
NASDAQ 100 0.53% 9173.732586 Delayed Quote.4.49%
NASDAQ COMP. 0.34% 9388.944045 Delayed Quote.3.19%
S&P 500 0.39% 3329.62 Delayed Quote.3.06%
S&P/CITIC 300 INDEX 0.00% 3616.8 Delayed Quote.1.83%
S&P/CITIC 50 INDEX 0.00% 3755.63 Delayed Quote.0.50%
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