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US STOCKS-Wall Street poised to close out wild year mixed

Chuck Mikolajczak
·4 min read
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(For a Reuters live blog on U.S., UK and European stock markets, click LIVE/ or type LIVE/ in a news window.)

* S&P 500 set for over 15% annual gain

* Weekly jobless claims fall for second straight week

* Dow up 0.22%, S&P 500 up 0.18%, Nasdaq down 0.13% (Updates to mid-afternoon changes byline)

By Chuck Mikolajczak

NEW YORK, Dec 31 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were poised to end a tumultuous year mixed, leaving the three major U.S. equity indexes with solid-to-spectacular yearly gains despite the economy being upended by the COVID-19 virus as investors looked towards a post-pandemic world.

In a year that marked the end of the longest bull market on record as government lockdowns enacted because of the pandemic battered the global economy, equities stormed back, with the S&P 500 climbing more than 66% from its March 23 low, resulting in the shortest bear market on in history.

The gains, which have left the three major averages near record highs hit earlier this week, were fueled in part by massive fiscal and monetary stimulus put in place to buttress the economy reeling from the coronavirus fallout, as well as progress on a vaccine.

For the year, the S&P 500 is up more than 15%, the Dow more than 6% and the Nasdaq about 43%, which would mark the biggest yearly gain for the tech-heavy index since 2009.

"Unless there's a big news item, traders and investors are happy with a 15% year for the S&P 500. The vaccine rollout is coming along that's a positive that's being offset by surging coronavirus cases," said Oliver Pursche, president of Bronson Meadows Capital Management in Fairfield, Connecticut.

"I'm optimistic for 2021 in terms of equity returns. We could see another double-digit year for the S&P, which would make it an unbelievable four-year run." Still, data on Thursday was a reminder the economy still has a long way to recover as weekly initial jobless claims, while declining for a second straight week to 787,000, remained well above the peak of the 2007-2009 Great Recession.

Tech and consumer discretionary are set to be the best performing sectors on the year, while energy, a laggard for the past decade, was once again on track to be the weakest of the 11 major S&P sectors on the year and log its worst yearly performance ever.

Mega-cap names such as Amazon and Apple helped lift the broad S&P 500 and the Nasdaq, as well as gains in names that have benefited from the "stay-at-home" environment, such as online retailer ETSY Inc and digital payment platform PayPal.

On the session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 65.68 points, or 0.22%, to 30,475.24, the S&P 500 gained 6.62 points, or 0.18%, to 3,738.66 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 16.16 points, or 0.13%, to 12,853.85.

Near-term expectations of bigger stimulus checks dimmed after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a quick vote on Wednesday to back President Donald Trump's call to increase COVID-19 relief checks to $2,000 from $600.

Risk assets were able to build on the rally off the March low rallied in November following a U.S. election that investors viewed as likely to result in political gridlock and optimism around vaccines rollouts grew, but the momentum stalled on worries over fresh fiscal stimulus and a new, highly infectious COVID-19 variant spreading globally.

All eyes are on two U.S. Senate races in Georgia next week that will determine control of the chamber and influence Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's ability to enact his agenda.

Trading volumes were light and have dwindled as the week moves closer to New Year's Eve and the markets will remain closed on Friday for the holiday.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 1.27-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.22-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 17 new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 105 new highs and 19 new lows. (Additional reporting by Stephen Culp; editing by Diane Craft)