Stocks cling to tiny gains as investors parse signals on US-China trade

Major US stock indexes closed mixed Tuesday, shedding most of their gains from earlier in the day, after a published report said an interim US-China trade deal would not remove tariffs on Chinese goods.

The benchmark S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite finished slightly off their record highs from a day earlier. The Dow Jones industrial average notched a slight gain. Small-company stocks rose.

Technology stocks accounted for much of the selling. The sector is particularly sensitive to developments in trade relations because many of the companies rely on China for sales and supply chains.

Investors also bid up shares in several big banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Citibank, after the companies reported surprisingly good quarterly results.


The market’s late-afternoon burst of selling came a day before the United States and China were due to sign a preliminary trade agreement in Washington. Optimism that the deal will bring the two economic powerhouses closer to ending the dispute threatening global economic growth has helped drive markets higher for weeks.

Still, reports suggesting that US tariffs on Chinese goods will remain in place until at least after this year’s election appeared to dim some investors’ enthusiasm for the deal.

“Would the market be more satisfied with a reduction in those tariffs? Absolutely,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial. “Nonetheless, you don’t want to have an escalation in the tariff war. That was the most important thing for the market.”

The S&P 500 index fell 4.98 points, or 0.2 percent, to 3,283.15. The index had been up as much as 0.2 percent earlier. The Nasdaq slid 22.60 points, or 0.2 percent, to 9,251.33.

The Dow rose 32.62 points, or 0.1 percent, to 28,939.67. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks climbed 6.14 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,675.74.

Bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury slipped to 1.81 percent from 1.84 percent late Monday.


President Trump and China’s chief negotiator, Liu He, are scheduled to sign a modest trade agreement Wednesday that calls for the United States to ease some sanctions on China. The United States dropped its designation of China as a currency manipulator in advance of the signing. Beijing, meanwhile, will step up its purchases of US farm products and other goods.

While the deal is limited in scope, investors have welcomed it in hopes it will prevent further escalation in the conflict, which has slowed global growth, hurt US manufacturers, and weighed on the Chinese economy.

With the trade issue entering a new stage, Wall Street is focusing on the rollout of corporate earnings reports over the next few weeks.

Several large banks were among the companies that kicked off the latest earnings season on Wall Street Tuesday.

JPMorgan Chase rose 1.2 percent after the banking giant reported a surge in profits because of a blowout quarter from its trading desks. The earnings handily beat analysts’ forecasts. Citigroup climbed 1.6 percent after reporting a similar jump in profits because of its trading operations.

Wells Fargo did not fare as well. The bank’s stock slumped 5.4 percent as its profit and revenue dropped because of hefty costs and lower interest rates. Wells Fargo is still under growth restrictions by regulators after years of missteps, beginning in 2016 with the uncovering of millions of fake checking accounts its employees opened to meet sales quotas.


Delta Air Lines rose 3.3 percent after the company increased its fourth-quarter profit to $1.1 billion by adding more flights over the holiday period and packing them even more full of passengers. The results beat Wall Street’s forecasts.

Delta’s solid report helped lift some of its rivals. United Airlines rose 1.1 percent, and American Airlines gained 0.5 percent.

Wall Street expects corporate profits for S&P 500 companies in the last three months of 2019 to be down by 2 percent. That would be the first time that earnings for the S&P 500 would have declined four quarters in a row since the period ending in mid-2016, according to FactSet.

Companies typically outperform forecasts and temper expectations for sharp declines by the time the bulk of financial reporting is done. Investors are more likely to focus on what management teams’ outlooks, especially with the prospect of less uncertainty over the US-China trade dispute.

“What we want to hear is what companies are seeing from their own customers, what are they hearing?” said Krosby. “And are they more optimistic going into 2020?”

Nvidia led Tuesday’s slide in technology stocks. The chip maker dropped 1.9 percent. Health care stocks led the gainers, receiving a big boost from Perrigo, which vaulted 12.6 percent higher.

Boston Scientific fell 6.2 percent after giving a weak fourth-quarter sales update.

GameStop skidded 13.3 percent after the video game retail chain reported holiday sales that fell below expectations, partly due to lower demand for software and hardware.


Benchmark crude oil rose 15 cents to settle at $58.23 a barrel. Brent crude oil, the international standard, gained 29 cents to $64.49.