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Stocks slip even amid stronger-than-expected 4Q GDP report

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U.S. stocks edged lower even as a reading on growth in the U.S. economy came in better-than-expected.

The S&P 500 (^GSPC) fell 0.28%, or 7.89 points, as of market close. The Dow (^DJI) fell 0.27%, or 69.03 points, while the Nasdaq (^IXIC) ticked down 0.29%, or 21.98 points.

Despite the downturn in equities during Thursday’s session, stocks have still risen for the year-to-date. The S&P 500 is up about 11.5% in 2019, representing the best January to February total return since 1991. This compares to an average return of 1.5% for the first two months of the year, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis on Thursday released its combined first and second print for U.S. gross domestic product, about a month later-than-expected due to the 35-day partial government shutdown. The results showed that the U.S. economy grew at a 2.6% rate in the fourth quarter, or better than the 2.2% economists expected. In the second and third quarters, GDP was 4.2% and 3.4%, respectively.

The latest print brings real GDP for 2018 to 3.1%, as measured from the fourth quarter of 2017 to fourth quarter of 2018. This came in ahead of the Trump administration’s 3% annual growth target.

The better-than-expected results were driven by an acceleration in business investment. Non-residential investments, a proxy for business spending, advanced, while consumer spending softened slightly.

Other optically positive headlines on U.S.-China trade relations failed to provide a lasting lift to markets. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said in an interview with CNBC that the U.S. was “making great headway on nontariff barriers and tariffs” during recent negotiations with China, and that “progress has been terrific.” He acknowledged, however, that the U.S. would still need to “hear from President Xi Jinping,” who has yet to meet with President Donald Trump since their December meeting at the G20 summit in Argentina.

These comments come a day following testimony from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who quelled optimism for an impending trade deal when he told a House committee that a deal with China must involve “new rules” and “significant structural changes,” not just “promises of additional purchases” of U.S. goods.

Elsewhere, European and Asian equities broadly declined as President Donald Trump on Thursday cut short a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as the two leaders were unable to come to a deal that achieved the U.S. goal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Trump previously met with Kim last summer, which resulted in a joint statement in which the DPRK said it was committed “to work toward complete denuclearization,” however, little progress has been made since. Kim was willing to dismantle its major Yongbyon nuclear complex if the U.S. were to ease sanctions, but this was not enough given Washington also wanted a deal to include shuttering other parts of North Korea’s nuclear program as well, Trump told reporters.


JCPenney (JCP) reported stronger-than-expected earnings for the holiday quarter amid the retailer’s ongoing turnaround efforts to reduce its inventory pile-up and slim down its broad swathe of offerings to focus on profitability. Adjusted earnings per share for the fourth quarter were 18 cents, ahead of consensus estimates of 10 cents, according to Bloomberg estimates. Quarterly net sales totaled $3.67 billion, slightly below estimates of $3.71 billion. Comparable same-store sales, a key metric for retailers, decreased 6% in the fourth quarter on an unshifted basis and declined 4% on a shifted basis, or slightly better than the decrease of 4.7% consensus analysts anticipated. JCPenney also announced it will be closing 18 full-line stores in 2019, including three locations it previously announced in January, along with closing 9 ancillary home and furniture stores.

Square (SQ) delivered guidance for the first quarter that fell short of consensus expectations, eclipsing better-than-expected sales for the fourth quarter. Fourth-quarter adjusted revenue totaled $464 million, ahead of estimates of $454.6 million, while fourth-quarter adjusted earnings were in-line at 14 cents per share. Closely-watched subscription and services revenue for the fourth quarter grew 144% from the year earlier to $194 million. The payments company, however, sees adjusted earnings for the first quarter between 6 cents and 8 cents per share, well below consensus expectations of 11.5 cents per share.


Initial jobless claims rose more-than-expected for the week ending February 23, the Labor Department reported Thursday. New unemployment claims totaled 225,000 for the week, or higher than the 220,000 expected and the upwardly revised 217,000 from the week prior. The four-week moving average for initial claims, however, decreased by 7,000 to 229,000, after the previous week’s average was revised up slightly by 250 to 236,000 from 235,750.

Continuing jobless claims reached a 10-month high at 1.805 million. This was ahead of the 1.737 million expected and the upwardly revised 1.726 million from the week prior.

“The turn-of-the-year seasonal noise and the impact of the government shutdown have now faded from the claims numbers, and the trend has re-emerged at a slightly higher level than last fall. Economic growth has slowed a bit from last year’s peak and is unlikely to rebound in the near-term, so claims could easily nudge a bit higher,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note Thursday. “But they will remain at a very low level, not least because firms don’t want to let people go unless they have no choice; the labor market is so tight that replacing staff is very difficult.”

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

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