A scattered day of trading left stocks mixed on Tuesday with the Nasdaq enjoying a record close for its third day in a row and the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting pause again on moves toward 20,000.
The S&P 500 was essentially flat and the Dow fell 0.16%, finishing at 19,855. The Nasdaq added 0.36% and ended the day with a new record close of 5,551.
Trading has been erratic ahead of a press conference Wednesday with President-elect Donald Trump, his first since July. Trump could provide details Wednesday on his policy positions, including infrastructure spending plans and policies intended to boost job growth. Uncertainty over Trump's plans dragged on the U.S. dollar and boosted the price of gold. Gold for February delivery climbed 60 cents to $1,185.50 an ounce, its highest settlement in six weeks.
The Dow has struggled to breach 20,000 in recent days after coming close to the milestone on Friday. The Dow has rocketed higher since the November presidential election as investors grew more confident in Trump's infrastructure spending plans.
"Expectations continue to run high that regulations will be rolled back, allowing corporate earnings to improve and support the higher markets," said Paul Nolte, senior vice president of Kingsview Asset Management. "Of course, the new administration could usher in trade wars with a variety of trading partners, boost inflation by profligate spending that would also push interest rates higher."
Crude oil prices declined on Tuesday after slumping to a three-week low a day earlier. The U.S. Energy Information Administration on Tuesday increased its forecast for U.S. crude output this year to 9 million barrels a day, up from 8.78 million in its previous forecast. The agency also upped its full-year price forecast to $52.50 a barrel, higher than its previous forecast of $50.66.
West Texas Intermediate crude was down 2.2% to $50.82 a barrel on Tuesday.
Investors were in wait-and-see mode ahead of the kickoff to the fourth-quarter earnings season later in the week. Average earnings for the S&P 500 in the fourth quarter are expected to increase 4.4% from the same period a year earlier. Earnings growth would mark the second straight quarter of gains after the third quarter broke an earnings recession that lasted for four consecutive quarters.
"We believe investors are pricing in a beat for fourth-quarter earnings," said Lindsey Bell, investment strategist at S&P Capital IQ. "EPS growth hasn't fallen short of expectations since first quarter 2009 and the past two quarters had solid beat rates of 4.9% and 3.5%, respectively. As long as investors don't anticipate a greater-than-average beat, fourth-quarter earnings shouldn't rock the market.
Job openings remained unchanged in November in another sign strength in the labor market is holding. Openings held at 5.5 million in November, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Hiring rose 1.1% to 5.2 million.
Airline stocks were in rally mode after Alaska Air Group (ALK) reported a positive December. Overall load factor in December increased 50 basis points to 83.1%. Other airline stocks including JetBlue (JBLU) , Delta (DAL) and United Continental (UAL) climbed.
General Motors (GM) spiked 3% after guiding for above-consensus earnings for fiscal 2017. The automaker anticipates adjusted earnings of $6 to $6.50 a share for the full year, above estimates of $5.71. Growth in North America and China and a comeback in South America should drive earnings growth. GM also authorized a new share repurchase plan worth up to $5 billion, increasing its total buyback program to $14 billion.
Ascena Retail Group (ASNA) slumped nearly 10% after reducing full-year earnings guidance. The owner of Ann Taylor and Dress Barn anticipates fiscal 2017 adjusted earnings between 37 and 42 cents a share, cut from a previous range of 60 cents to 65 cents. Analysts anticipated earnings of 58 cents a share.
Goldman Sachs, (GS) was downgraded to sell from hold at Citigroup on Tuesday. The firm said it does not see a compelling risk/reward case following recent stock gains.
Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX) shares gained almost 7% after the company agreed to sell three skincare lines to L'Oreal (LRLCY) for $1.3 billion, and its Dendreon cancer business to China's Sanpower Group for $820 million.