Stocks searched for direction in a choppy trading session Thursday as investors dealt with volatile oil prices and concerns about consumer spending and retail weakness.
It’s been a wild week for the Dow, with the blue chip gauge falling 217 points Wednesday — its biggest one-day drop in three months — virtually wiping out all of Tuesday’s 222-point gain. Investors again dealt with crosscurrents, ranging from department store giant Macy’s (M) saying Wednesday that the sales outlook for the rest of the year is dim due to consumers unwillingness to spend freely, to ongoing volatility in the oil patch, where prices of U.S.-produced crude continue to gyrate despite stabilizing in recent weeks.
The Dow Jones industrial average ended with a scant 9-point gain at 17,721 after being up as much as 87 points earlier in the session and then down 86 points at midday. The broader Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index also was virtually unchanged. Only the tech-packed Nasdaq composite index ended with much of a change, falling 0.5% after Apple hit its lowest level since 2014 — and ceded the spot as the USA’s most-valuable company to Google parent Alphabet.
Oil prices remained volatile as U.S.-produced crude gained 26 cents to $46.48 after rising as high as $47.02 a barrel and falling a slow as $45.61.
Adding to the questions about the U.S. consumer was an earnings miss from retailer Kohl’s (KSS) before today’s opening bell. The 6 cents miss pushed Kohl’s shares down 9.2%. Macy’s stock got destroyed Wednesday, plunging 15%.
Wall Street has been grappling with a stock market flirting with all-time highs — heading into Thursday’s trading the S&P 500 was roughly 3% shy of its May 2015 record — at a time when corporate earnings are weak and stock valuations are at above-average levels.
Heading into Thursday’s session, earnings for the S&P 500 are seen contracting 5.4% in the first quarter, and on track for a third straight quarter of negative growth, according to Thomson Reuters. On the valuation front, the broad market gauge is trading at roughly 17 times estimated earnings for the next four quarters, which is above the average 14.7 price-to-earnings ratio dating back nearly 50 years.
Foreign stocks were mostly lower. In Europe the broad Stoxx Europe 600 index was down 0.5%. And in Asia, Japan’s Nikkei 225 closed up 0.4% while shares in Hong Kong slipped 0.7%. Stocks finished unchanged in mainland China.
Adam Shell on Twitter: @adamshell.