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S&P 500, Dow down but poised for gain

Wall Street closed lower on Thursday, retreating in thin holiday volume from record highs set early in the session on strong US data including a drop in weekly claims for US unemployment benefits.

With one trading day left, the S&P 500 was set to end the year more than 27 per cent higher, with the Nasdaq up about 23 per cent and the Dow’s annual rise just shy of 20 per cent. Each of Wall Street’s main indexes was poised for its sharpest three-year surge since 1997-99.

According to preliminary data, the S&P 500 lost 14.03 points, or 0.29 per cent, to end at 4,779.81 points, while the Nasdaq Composite lost 24.65 points, or 0.16 per cent, to 15,741.56. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 85.22 points, or 0.23 per cent, to 36,403.41.

Investors cheered a US Labor Department report that the number of Americans filing for new unemployment claims dropped to a seasonally adjusted 198,000 in the week leading up to Christmas, from a revised 206,000 a week earlier. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast weekly applications would rise to 208,000.

In other strong US data, the Chicago purchasing managers’ index (PMI) delivered a print of 63.1, a monthly increase of 1.3 points and 1.1 points above consensus.

A PMI number over 50 signifies expanded activity over the previous month.

Equities have rallied recently on some of the thinnest trading volumes that US stock exchanges have seen due to the holidays. Investors were encouraged by growing evidence that the Omicron variant causes less-severe infections of COVID-19 than the Delta strain.

On Wednesday, top US infectious disease adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said the surge in cases of the Omicron variant should peak by the end of January.

“The strong manufacturer data out of Chicago and an impressive initial jobless claims continue to show an economy that is quite healthy, omits the continued worries obviously over the Omicron variants,” said Ryan Detrick, chief market strategist at LPL Financial in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Detrick cautioned that low holiday season trading volume could exaggerate price upwards moves.

Stock markets are in a seasonally strong “Santa Claus Rally” that typically occurs in the last five trading days of the year and the first two of the new year.

In 2022, investors will shift their attention to expected US interest rate hikes and midterm elections for US Congress, where President Joe Biden’s Democrats now hold a slim majority.

“Midterm years tend to be the most volatile out of the four-year cycle. There’s actually a 17 per cent average peak to trunk correction during a midterm year, which is the largest of the four years.”

Detrick added, “Investors were pretty spoiled this year. So be aware that next year won’t be as easy.”

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