US stocks close up

A late-session buying spurt gave US stocks a moderate lift today.

A late-session buying spurt gave US stocks a moderate lift today.

But with volume extremely light, analysts said it was difficult to place any real significance on the upturn.

A plunge in the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index, which fell to 98.2 in August from 105.7 in July, kept stocks lower for much of the day and raised concerns on Wall Street that a lack of new jobs could extend the summer’s economic slowdown through the third quarter, or perhaps longer.

Data on Midwest manufacturing activity also showed a sharp decline for the month.

With oil prices extending their losses, buyers did move back into the market at the end of the session. But the turnaround was probably exaggerated because of the light turnover – many investors have stayed out of the market entirely during the Republican National Convention in New York.

“It’s hard to make anything out of this rise with the light trading we’re in right now,” said Brian Pears, head equity trader at Victory Capital Management. “No matter how you look at it, the economic numbers weren’t good. We’re really going to need to see evidence that this summer was a soft spot and not something prolonged.”

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 51.40, or 0.5%, at 10,173.92.

Broader stock indicators were narrowly mixed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 5.09, or 0.5%, to 1,104.24, and the Nasdaq composite index was up 1.61, or 0.1%, at 1,838.10.

The major indexes ended August with the Dow rising 0.2% and the S&P edging 0.1% higher, while the Nasdaq tumbled 2.8% for the month.

The consumer confidence index reading fell far below the 103.5 expected by Wall Street, and, because consumers were focused on jobs, put even more of a focus on the government’s August employment report, scheduled for release on Friday.

The government’s payroll figures have been disappointing Wall Street all summer – another lacklustre figure would probably recast the economy’s recent slowdown as a larger and more disturbing trend.

The Chicago Purchasing Managers Index, a measure of manufacturing activity in the Chicago area, also fell below expectations, coming in at 57.3 in August, down from 64.7 in July and worse than the 60 forecast by economists.

The Chicago PMI is considered a harbinger of the US manufacturing report to be issued tomorrow by the Institute for Supply Management.

“We’re starting to see some reinforcement in the economic data that this is more than just a soft patch for the economy,” said Michael Chren, senior director of value equity investment for the Armada Funds. “I think Friday we’ll have another very powerful data point with the jobs figure coming out, and if that’s lower than expected, that will really throw fuel on the fire.”

Another drop in oil prices took the edge off investors’ concerns, however, and fed the late rally. A barrel of crude was quoted at 42.12, down 16 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after topping 49 per barrel last week, but investors feared that the damage from weeks of higher prices may have already been done.

Technology shares saw pressure from a number of reduced forecasts in microprocessors. Intel’s third-quarter earnings forecast was downgraded by Morgan Stanley, while JP Morgan Securities lowered its outlooks for communications chip makers Xilinx and Altera.

Intel shed 31 cents to 21.29, while Xilinx lost 7 cents to 27.43 and Altera fell 16 cents to 18.92.

Merck & Co edged 4 cents higher to 44.97 despite a study it commissioned, designed to drive sales of its cholesterol drug Zocor, showed no discernible difference between taking Zocor and simply adhering to a low-cholesterol diet.

Charles Schwab announced it would sell its Soundview Capital Markets division, purchased less than a year ago for 321 million, to Swiss bank UBS AG for just 265 million, part of Schwab’s refocusing on its core businesses.

Schwab was down 2 cents at 9.45.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by more than 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume was very light.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was up 3.37, or 0.6%, at 547.93.

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