Stocks finished a memorable week mostly flat Friday, as investors tried to reconcile a weaker-than-expected estimate of first-quarter economic growth Friday with fresh evidence that corporate profits remain robust. A modest advance in the Dow Jones industrial average sent the blue-chip index to its third record close in as many days.
A Commerce Department report that the U.S. gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the first quarter — its slowest pace in four years — unnerved some investors Friday and seemed to run counter to a parade of strong earnings reports that sent major indexes sharply higher during the week. The economy’s growth was below economists’ expectations and down sharply from 2.5 percent in the previous quarter.
The government data also showed that pricing pressures were rising — stirring concern that U.S. consumers may curb spending. A related report found prices excluding costs for food and energy, which can be volatile, rose at a rate of 2.2 percent.
The GDP data helped push the euro to a high against the dollar; the 13-nation currency rose as high as $1.3682.
Keeping stocks afloat, however, was another round of robust earnings reports — notably from Microsoft Corp., one of the 30 companies that make up the Dow. So far, 22 of the 30 Dow components have reported earnings, and 16 have exceeded expectations.
“I think the reason the market appears to be doing better than the economy right now is the decent job managers are doing at incorporating improvements in productivity,” said Rob Lutts, chief investment officer at Cabot Money Management. “Corporations are making gains on the bottom line without making gains on the top line,” he said, referring to earnings and revenue.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 15.44 points, or 0.12 percent. The Dow set a trading high of 13,148.00 Friday after surpassing 13,000 for the first time Wednesday. The Dow’s gain Friday marked the 37th record close for the index since October.
The broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index slipped 0.18 point, or 0.01 percent, while the technology-dominated Nasdaq composite index rose 2.75 points, or 0.11 percent.
The S&P 500 is about 2 percent below its high of 1,527.46, reached in March 2000. Wall Street has been eyeing the index, waiting for it to move back above 1,500; the S&P 500 hasn’t closed above that level since September 2000.
The Nasdaq, meanwhile, is slightly above the halfway point to its high, which also came in March 2000.
The bevy of profit reports and economic figures have left Wall Street grappling with at times disparate signals about the direction of the economy. Slowing economic growth could prompt the Federal Reserve to lower short-term interest rates, giving a boost to stocks, but rising inflation could prevent the central bank from making a cut. Meanwhile, a weak dollar helps exporters, but hurts importers.
“As long as our economy doesn’t really slow down and go into big negative mode, then profits can continue to grow and the markets will probably do OK,” Lutts said, noting that while the economy slowed in the first quarter, it did not contract.
Though the U.S. economy has been cooling, investors have been buying stocks in part because corporate profits are still rising. U.S. companies that also operate abroad have drawn sizable profits from countries with stronger economies and currencies.
“Every company has a little bit different story, but those that are being well-managed and having good growth are producing good results. Generally we’re seeing pretty good numbers,” he said.
Microsoft was among the latest companies to lend support to investor sentiment. The software maker jumped $1.02, or 3.5 percent, to $30.12, after reporting a 65 percent surge in its fiscal third-quarter earnings amid strong sales of its new Windows Vista operating system and Office 2007 software suite.
General Electric Co. was the second-best performer in the Dow Friday behind Microsoft, rising $1, or 2.8 percent, to $36.84 after a Citigroup Inc. analyst said the conglomerate could boost its shares by selling its entertainment, real estate and financial businesses to boost its share price.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. reported a loss for the first quarter compared with a profit a year earlier but pleased Wall Street with word it would dig deeper to trim costs and that a recovery from a strike was proving less onerous than expected. Goodyear rose $1.91, or 5.9 percent, to $34.41.
Airline stocks fell, however, after JPMorgan Chase lowered its rating on several carriers, seeing little cause for the stocks to move higher. American Airlines parent AMR Corp. fell $1.34, or 4.8 percent, to $26.35, while Continental Airlines Inc. dropped $2.53, or 6.5 percent, to $36.25.
Along with profit news, corporate takeover activity continued to buoy the mood on Wall Street. On Friday, Citigroup said it successfully took over Japanese brokerage Nikko Cordial Corp. for $7.7 billion. The acquisition was the largest ever by a foreign company in Japan. As is typical of an acquiring company, Citigroup fell, slipping 19 cents to $53.37.
In addition to the GDP data, investors examined the Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index, which rose to 87.1 in April from a preliminary reading of 85.3 but fell from 88.4 in March.
Bonds were little changed; the 10-year yield was flat at 4.70 percent from late Thursday.
Light, sweet crude settled up $1.40 at $66.46 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, rising late in the session after Saudi Arabia arrested 172 militants, some of whom it said planned to attack oil fields. Gold prices rose.
Stock markets overseas fell. Japan’s Nikkei stock average slipped 0.16 percent, while Britain’s FTSE 100 ended down 0.78 percent, Germany’s DAX index lost 0.12 percent and France’s CAC-40 declined 0.23 percent.