Zigzag Week Leaves U.S. Stocks Little Changed Before Jobs Report

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Six points in four days.

That’s how far the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index got in the holiday-shortened week, the smallest gain this year as data on factory output, real estate and hiring sent mixed signals before Friday’s jobs report.

In a week that saw the S&P 500 cap its ninth straight quarterly advance, stocks fluctuated between gains and losses as concern grew that the six-year bull market may stall. Conflicting data called into question whether the recovery is strong enough to justify higher interest rates, while speculation grew that signs of a slowdown will hurt earnings.

Investors will get fresh data when the government releases its March jobs report. Alcoa Inc. next week unofficially kicks off an earnings season that analysts forecast will show the first profit decline since 2009.

“People are staying on the sidelines, which is why you’re not seeing too much movement,” Robert Pavlik, who helps oversee $9 billion as chief investment strategist at Boston Private Wealth, said. “We got some data from this week that highlighted what we saw in March, which was a difficult period. There’s been a lot of talk about how this is going to be a tough earnings season, and not a lot of people want to commit.”

The S&P 500 increased 0.3 percent to 2,066.96, with the benchmark gauge trading around a 15-point range framed by its 50-day and 100-day moving averages. The Dow Jones Industrial Average added 50.58 points, or 0.3 percent, to 17,763.24. The Nasdaq Composite Index fell 0.1 percent, after completing a ninth quarterly gain, its longest streak ever.

Labor Statistics

In the week, jobless claims unexpectedly fell, while a private payrolls report missed estimates. U.S. employers probably hired fewer workers in March, economists said.

While exchanges will be closed for the Good Friday holiday, futures contracts will continue to trade for 45 minutes after the data, giving investors a window to react.

Other data in early 2015 has been the most disappointing in years, with retail sales slumping in January and February, residential construction weakening and manufacturing cooling.

Investors are parsing the data for clues on the timing of the Federal Reserve’s first interest-rate increase since 2006. Chair Janet Yellen said March 27 that she expects to raise rates this year, and that subsequent increases will be gradual.

No Trend

“It’s still this wait-and-see game with the Fed,” said David Lafferty, chief market strategist at Natixis Global Asset Management in Boston, where he helps oversee about $900 billion. “Fed tightening and valuation right now is sort of putting a limit on the market and that’s why you’ve seen this trendlessness.”

Profits for S&P 500 companies are forecast to decline 5.8 percent in the first quarter as results were buffeted by tumbling oil prices and a stronger dollar. Investors may face the longest stretch of declines since the financial crisis, with slumps of 4.2 percent and 1 percent over the second and third quarters, according to analyst estimates.

The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index fell 2.7 percent to 14.67 for the week. The gauge, known as the VIX, posted its biggest quarterly decline in two years, down 20 percent.

Energy, Mergers

Seven of the S&P 500’s 10 main industries advanced in the week, with phone and utility shares each climbing 1.6 percent. The two groups, which have the highest dividend yields in the index, gained as the rate on 10-year Treasury notes slid to 1.91 percent.

Energy shares advanced 1.5 percent, with Newfield Exploration Co. and Marathon Oil Corp. adding more than 4.5 percent. U.S. crude posted on Wednesday its biggest one-day gain since February after data showed a drop in weekly output.

Stocks got a boost from merger activity as UnitedHealth Group Inc. agreed to buy Catamaran Corp. and Charter Communications Inc. said it would acquire a majority stake in Bright House Networks.

The two deals, valued at more than $20 billion in total, capped a month that included $348 billion in acquisitions, the most since April 2014. Catamaran surged 23 percent on the week while Charter climbed 5.3 percent.

The Nasdaq Biotechnology Index slipped 2.3 percent as Biogen Inc. and Amgen Inc. each retreated 4.1 percent. The gauge, which posted its best quarterly gain since 2013, has lost 7.4 percent since reaching a record on March 20.

American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. slumped more than 5.8 percent after Deutsche Bank cut its ratings on the shares. A strong dollar, capacity increases by non-U.S. airlines and slowing global growth contributed to the downgrade decision.

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