Stock Market Today: Stocks Scratch Out Meager Gains

Lowest jobless claims number since 1968 gives the major indexes just enough oomph to avoid a third straight session in the red.

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Wall Street seemed to be en route to another day of losses, but a strong jobless-claims report helped stocks gain some momentum ahead of the week's final session.

The Labor Department on Thursday said that for the week ended April 2, just 166,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits – the lowest number since November 1968 (though also what they were for the week ended March 19). It also easily flew in lower than the 200,000 claims expected.

"Initial jobless claims looked too good to be true," says Edward Moya, senior market strategist at currency data provider OANDA. "Today's impressive claims data reminds Wall Street that the labor market is 'firing on all cylinders', which should allow the Fed to continue to solely focus on inflation."

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However, while the markets did manage to turn higher, it was primarily led by defensive names. Pfizer (PFE (opens in new tab), +4.3%) and Thermo Fisher Scientific (TMO (opens in new tab), +4.2%) were among the best performers in the healthcare sector (opens in new tab) (+1.9%), while Costco (COST (opens in new tab), +4.0%) and Target (TGT (opens in new tab), +5.7%) helped lift consumer staples stocks (opens in new tab) (+1.2%).

The end result was modest gains among the major indexes. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 0.3% to 34,583, the S&P 500 improved 0.4% to 4,500 and the Nasdaq Composite eked out a marginally higher finish at 13,897.

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"We continue to see defensive trading patterns in the options market, especially at the onset of earnings season, and remain surprised that the Cboe Volatility Index, or VIX, remains relatively subdued," says Steven Sears, president and chief operating officer of asset-management firm Options Solutions. "If earnings reports are as stressed as many investors believe they could be amidst these extraordinary economic and risk conditions, we could see a sharp investor re-rating of risk assets."

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(Image credit: YCharts)

Other news in the stock market today:

  • The small-cap Russell 2000 fell 0.4% to 2,009.
  • U.S. crude futures slipped 0.2% to $96.03 per barrel, marking their third straight loss.
  • Gold futures gained 0.8% to settle at $1,937.80 an ounce.
  • Bitcoin retreated 0.8% to $43,414.98. (Bitcoin trades 24 hours a day; prices reported here are as of 4 p.m.)
  • Deutsche Bank analyst George Hill downgraded Rite Aid (RAD (opens in new tab), -17.2%) to Sell from Hold and slashed his price target on the pharmacy chain to a mere dollar per share from $16. The bruising analyst note comes ahead of RAD's fourth-quarter earnings report – due out after the April 14 close – in which Hill will closely be watching the company's guidance for its next fiscal year. Why? "Because RAD needs to generate $190 million to $200 million in cash annually to cover its debt service costs, plus another $200 to $250 million to cover its store maintenance capital expenditure requirement, meaning RAD needs to generate ~$400 to $450 million in annual adjusted EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization ] to continue as an operating company," Hill writes in a note. Anything below that $400 million mark and "the equity arguably has no value as the company is not in a position to generate real returns to shareholders," he adds.
  • Ford Motor (F (opens in new tab)) skidded to a 2.9% loss after Barclays analyst Brian Johnson cut his rating on the automaker to Equalweight from Overweight (the equivalents of Hold and Buy, respectively). The analyst said Ford remains "vulnerable" to an ongoing global semiconductor shortage, while additional macro headwinds like commodities inflation could pressure margins. "Despite the selloff, we believe investors are still underestimating risks to the sector – and in particular to suppliers - from inflation and production pressures – as well as the impact of interest rate hikes on portfolio allocations," the analyst says.

Buffett Makes Another Big Buy

One of the day's most noteworthy gainers was printer leader HP (HPQ (opens in new tab), +14.8%), but it had nothing to do with any economic indicators. No, HP's good fortune was a vote of confidence from none other than the Oracle of Omaha.

Last night, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway disclosed a huge 11.4% stake in HPQ stock, immediately making it a dominant shareholder in the PC-and-printers name. Berkshire bought up 121 million shares worth $4.2 million, surpassing asset manager Vanguard as the top holder of HPQ.

Much of the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio (opens in new tab) represents bets by one of the greatest investors of all time, so as most of our readers know, we regularly keep tabs on what Buffett is buying and selling (opens in new tab). But he has been busier than usual of late, also taking a massive stake in oil play Occidental Petroleum (opens in new tab) (OXY (opens in new tab)) and outright buying insurer Allegheny (opens in new tab) (Y (opens in new tab)) in the past month or so alone.

Berkshire's most recent splash might leave some investors scratching their heads. But we explain why and how the HPQ stake move looks like a classic Buffett bet.

Kyle Woodley
Senior Investing Editor, Kiplinger.com

Kyle is senior investing editor for Kiplinger.com. As a writer and columnist, he also specializes in exchange-traded funds. He joined Kiplinger in September 2017 after spending six years at InvestorPlace.com, where he managed the editorial staff. His work has appeared in several outlets, including U.S. News & World Report and MSN Money, he has appeared as a guest on Fox Business Network and Money Radio, and he has been quoted in MarketWatch, Vice and Univision, among other outlets. He is a proud graduate of The Ohio State University, where he earned a BA in journalism.