U.S. stocks end sharply higher after inflation report, Nasdaq scores best quarter since 2020

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U.S. stocks closed sharply higher Friday, following a softer-than-expected inflation report for February. The Nasdaq Composite ended March with its largest quarterly gain since 2020.

How stocks traded
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average
    rose 415.12 points, or 1.3%, to close at 33,274.15.

  • The S&P 500
    gained 58.48 points, or 1.4%, to finish at 4,109.31.

  • The Nasdaq Composite
    jumped 208.44 points, or 1.7%, to end at 12,221.91.

For the week, the Dow gained 3.2% while the S&P rose 3.5% and the Nasdaq Composite advanced 3.4%. The Dow and S&P 500 each booked its best week since November, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

For the month, the Dow rose 1.9%, the S&P 500 increased 3.5% and the Nasdaq jumped 6.7%.

In the first quarter, the S&P 500 advanced 7% and the Dow edged up 0.4%. The Nasdaq soared 16.8% in the first three months of 2023 to notch its largest quarterly percentage rise since the second quarter of 2020.

What drove markets

U.S. stocks ended sharply higher Friday, closing out March with monthly and quarterly gains, as investors weighed data showing signs of moderating inflation.

“Core price pressures” eased in February, Barclays said in an economics research note Friday. “On balance, the easing in February PCE inflation was fairly broad-based across goods and services, barring housing.”

The personal-consumption-expenditures, or PCE, price index increased 0.3% in February, with inflation slowing to 5% year over year from 5.3% in January, according to a report Friday from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Core PCE, the Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge that excludes energy and food prices, rose 0.3% last month for a year-over-year rate of 4.6%. That’s slightly lower than forecasts from economists polled by the Wall Street Journal and softened from the 4.7% increase seen over the 12 months through January.

Read: Inflation softens in February, PCE finds, and gives ammo for Fed rate-hike pause

While the Federal Reserve has been battling high inflation with interest rate hikes, futures traders are betting that rates have already peaked and that the Fed will likely reverse course and cut rates at least a couple of times before the end of the year, according to the CME’s FedWatch tool.

The market is pricing in a “coin flip” as to whether the Fed raises its benchmark rate by a quarter percentage point at its May policy meeting or pauses, said Matt Stucky, senior portfolio manager at Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Co., in a phone interview Friday.

“We think we’re getting pretty close to the end” of the rate-hiking cycle, he said. Stucky expects the Fed may stop hiking once “cracks” start to form in the labor market, with job losses in “nonfarm payrolls.”

Meanwhile, consumer spending edged up 0.2% in February while personal incomes rose 0.3%, according to a Bureau of Economic Analysis report Friday.

“Incomes and spending are hanging in there and inflation’s cooling,” said Mike Skordeles, head of U.S. economics at Truist, in a phone interview Friday. “That has positive implications for markets” and the economy, he said.

Stocks traded higher following the release of the final reading on U.S. consumer sentiment for March from the University of Michigan. While confidence ticked lower compared with earlier estimates, inflation expectations moderated.

U.S. stocks have held up relatively well this quarter, shrugging off the Fed rate hikes and renewed recession fears. Since hitting its highest level of the year in early February, the S&P 500 has been trading in an increasingly narrow range, leaving analysts uncertain about where the market might be heading next.

“We need to see what the overall economy does,” said Kim Caughey Forrest, founder and chief investment officer of Bokeh Capital Partners. “I think GDP matters, and if GDP holds up while inflation comes down, that could be good for stocks.”

The Nasdaq Composite has risen 16.8% this year through March, for its biggest quarterly gain since the second quarter of 2020, according to FactSet data. The S&P 500 rose 7% in the first quarter while the Dow eked out a 0.4% quarterly gain.

“The bond market is definitely more concerned about recession risks than stocks are,” said Skordeles, who is expecting a recession in the second half of the year. “They couldn’t be sending more different signals.”

Read: Two-year Treasury yields on pace for biggest monthly drop since 2008 after bank turmoil

New York Fed President John Williams said Friday in a speech at Housatonic Community College that stress in the U.S banking system will cause banks to tighten credit and probably lead to lower consumer spending.

Companies in focus
  • Right-wing media platforms Rumble Inc.
    and Digital World Acquisition


    rose sharply on the Donald Trump indictment news. Rumble ended 7.1% higher while Digital World climbed 7.6%.

  • Metropolitan Bank Holding Corp.
    shares rallied 33.6% after issuing a financial update assuring investors that it is well capitalized.

  • Palisade Bio


    stock soared 32.8%, continuing a Thursday rally after Maxim Group upgraded the stock from hold to buy.

  • Spero Therapeutics


    shares rose 0.7% after the clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company posted fourth-quarter revenue of $47.4 million in 2022, higher than the $2.7 million in the same period of the previous year. The uplift was due to the company’s signings with GSK and Pfizer.

  • Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment Inc.
    sank 37.5% after the streaming-service parent company announced it would sell some stock and reported a fourth-quarter loss.

  • Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc.
    shares tumbled 41.2% after the space-launch company said late Thursday that it would axe about 675 employees – or 85% – of its staff and reportedly cease operations for the foreseeable future.

  • Nikola Corp.
    slumped 13.6% after the electric-vehicle maker said that it intends to sell stock at a 20% discount, for $1.12 per share.

  • U.S.-listed shares of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com Inc.
    finished down more than 1% after announcing late on Thursday that it intends to spin off two of its subsidiaries, following in the footsteps of Alibaba Group.

—Steve Goldstein contributed to this article.

Read the full article here

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