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Dow holds onto gains to end a wobbly session

U.S. stocks were mixed on Thursday as investors continue to process trade war progress and grapple with weeks of volatility.

The S&P 500 (^GSPC) was little changed, down 0.02%, or less than 1 point, as of market close. The materials and financials sectors led declines, while the utilities sector outperformed. The Dow (^DJI) rose 0.28%, or 70.11 points, while the Nasdaq (^IXIC) fell 0.39%, or 27.98 points.

Equities initially took a turn higher following news that China was buying U.S. soybeans, a commodity that has been at the center of trade tensions. China bought more than 1.5 million metric tons of American beans over the past 24 hours, marking a major step forward after the country had shunned U.S. soybean imports for months amid escalating trade tensions. China had purchased about $14 billion worth of U.S. soybeans in 2017, according to a Research and Markets report.

Ongoing trade tensions have stoked equity market volatility in recent months, with the S&P 500 down about 9.5% from its intraday high of 2,940.91 points in mid-September as of Wednesday’s close.

“This might seem obvious, but the main headwind to equity markets in recent months has been an increase in the equity risk premium, or the compensation investors demand for holding equities over Treasuries,” Neil Dutta, head of economics for Renaissance Macro Research, wrote in a note. “Recent headlines – trade war détente – will likely put some downward pressure on the equity risk premium and some upward pressure on Treasury yields.”

Overseas, the European Central Bank led by Mario Draghi announced on Thursday that it will end its 2.6 trillion-euro ($3 trillion) bond-buying program even amid a period of economic embattlement for the eurozone. The decision to end nearly four years of quantitative easing is seen as a symbol of the end of crisis-era policies in the region. The euro edged up slightly against the dollar (EURUSD=X) following the news but then fell after Draghi told reporters that risks are still “broadly balanced” but are now “moving to the downside” due to geopolitical, trade and market volatility concerns.

The ECB also decided to hold its benchmark interest rates at the current level at least through summer 2019. The U.S. Federal Reserve will meet next week, where it is widely expected to raise interest rates by one-quarter point to mark the fourth rate hike this year.

STOCKS: GE’s stock gets an upgrade from a longtime bear

General Electric (GE) announced it is launching a $1.2 billion industrial internet-of-things software company, bringing together GE Digital’s IIoT services as well as the GE Power Digital and Grid Software Solutions businesses. The company also announced it has agreed to sell a majority stake in ServiceMax, which provides field service management software, to the private equity firm Silver Lake.

GE’s stock received an added boost when longtime bearish analyst Stephen Tusa upgraded shares of GE to Neutral from Underweight and removed the stock from JP Morgan’s Analyst Focus List as a short idea. “We now see a more event-driven, balanced risk reward at current levels,” Tusa wrote in a note, adding that the “known unknowns” are better understood at this point and reflected in the stock price. Tusa in November had slashed GE’s price target to $6, the lowest on Wall Street at the time, in the wake of GE’s disappointing quarterly earnings results. Tusa maintained the price target in his most recent note but added that he sees upside risk to the stock of $8 and downside risk of $5. Shares of GE rose 7% to $7.18 each as of market close.

Traders work at their desks whilst screens show market data at CMC Markets in London, Britain, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Apple (AAPL) on Thursday announced a $1 billion investment in a new corporate campus in Austin, Texas, which could eventually create 15,000 jobs. The Cupertino, California–based company also said it will create offices in Seattle, San Diego and Culver City, California, adding more than 1,000 employees in each location. The decision comes following Apple’s announcement earlier this year to invest $30 billion in capital spending in the U.S. over the next five years. Shares of Apple rose 1.09% to $170.95 each as of market close.

ECONOMY: Import prices dropped more than expected in November

U.S. import prices declined 1.6% in November, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Thursday. This follows a 0.5% rise in prices in October, and marks a steeper decline than the 1% decrease anticipated by economists polled by Bloomberg. Import prices fell 0.7% over last year in November.

New unemployment claims fell to 206,000 for the week ending December 8, the U.S. Department of Labor said in its weekly statement. The week prior, jobless claims had totaled an upwardly revised 233,000. The latest headline reading falls short of consensus estimates of 226,000 new jobless claims, according to Bloomberg data.

Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck

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