It was another confounding day in which good news was bad news on Wall Street. The Dow and the S&P ended well off session lows, but still lost ground for the fourth straight day despite several upbeat economic reports -- or perhaps because of them.
ADP's read on private sector hiring showed a much better-than-expected 215,000 jobs were added last month; sales of newly built homes jumped 25 percent in October; and the Fed's Beige Book pointed to more economic growth at a moderate to modest pace.
But those reports just fueled worries that the Federal Reserve might see the strengthening economy as a sign that it was time to ease back on its stimulus measures. The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 25 points, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GPSC) dipped 2 points, and the Nasdaq composite index (^IXIC) added less than a point. The Dow had been down 125 points.
Retail stocks continue to struggle this holiday season.
J.C. Penney (JCP) lost 4.5 percent, despite a nice jump in November sales. However, the comparison is against a horrible period a year ago, when Penney was in disarray thanks to the overhaul undertaken by then-CEO Ron Johnson, and Hurricane Sandy had just ripped though the Northeast.
Sears (SHLD) tumbled 8 percent after a company controlled by CEO Eddie Lampert lowered its stake in Sears to 48 percent from 55 percent. Express (EXPR) tumbled 23 percent following a downbeat earnings outlook. And Aeropostale (ARO), another mall-based chain, fell 4 percent ahead of its earnings report. But apparel maker G-III (GIII) jumped 14 percent on strong earnings and an upbeat outlook.
Another hard hit sector was oil refiners. There's concern that more Iranian crude on the market will hurt U.S. exports. Marathon Petroleum (MPC) and HollyFrontier (HFC) both lost 4 percent. Valero (VLO) and Tesoro (TSO) fell about 3 percent each.
And the big loser of the day was Ambit Biosciences (AMBI). It lost a third of its value after the FDA said that a drug it's developing to treat leukemia would require more trials, which can be both expensive and time consuming.
On the upside, Newmont Mining (NEM) rose 2 percent as the price of gold bounced higher for a second straight day. But Newmont shares over the past year are still down 47 percent -- closely tracking the price of gold.
And Microsoft (MSFT) gained 1.5 percent, rising to its highest level in 13 years.
What to Watch Thursday:
At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department reports weekly jobless claims, and the Commerce Department releases its second estimate on third quarter economic growth.
At 10 a.m., Freddie Mac reports weekly mortgage rates, and the Commerce Department releases factory orders for October.
These major companies are due to report quarterly corporate earnings:
-Produced by Drew Trachtenberg.