Wall Street closes higher as new quarter begins

/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street began the third quarter with an erratic session and modest gain Tuesday after a mix of news made it clear the country is still deep in economic problems but may have some positive trends — including some better than expected sales for General Motors Corp.

Prices rose early in the session, then turned sharply lower for much of the day and then recovered in late afternoon. The uneven performance wasn’t surprising — some bargain hunting was to be expected after a dismal first half, and in particular, a dismal June.

The session brought more discouraging news for investors: Oil rose again toward record high levels, a report showed that U.S. manufacturers are still under duress and Ford Motor Co. said its June sales tumbled. This all raised the market’s fears that the economy — still reeling from soaring commodities prices and the lingering credit crisis — is not any closer to turning around.

Yet GM’s sales, while falling 18.2 percent during June, came in above analysts’ forecasts, retaining Detroit’s lead over Toyota Motor Corp. and sending the automaker’s shares higher. GM’s news was in sharp contrast to the dismal results reported earlier by Ford Motor Co., where a 27.9 percent plunge in sales for the month sent the company’s stock to its lowest point in decades.

And while the Institute for Supply Management had an overall disappointing report on manufacturing in June, it also reported strong exports for U.S. factories.

“This market is craving anything positive,” said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer’s Investment Research. He said because the market has sold off so much in recent days, traders took GM’s weak but better-than-expected sales as a buying opportunity

The Dow Jones industrial average, down more than 150 points earlier, rose 32.25, or 0.28 percent, to 11,382.26, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 4.91, or 0.38 percent, to 1,284.91. The Nasdaq composite gained 11.99, or 0.52 percent, to 2,304.97.

“A bounce like this wasn’t unexpected,” said Joseph V. Battipaglia, chief investment officer at Ryan Beck & Co. He said GM’s sales beating Toyota gave the Dow a lift, as did a late-day partial pullback in oil prices.

Oil settled at a new record of $140.97 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after rising above $143 a barrel earlier as worries about tight supply and mounting tensions in the Middle East continued.

“We’ve been dancing to the tune to oil prices,” Battipaglia said.

Bonds also bounced up and down as investors pulled money out of stocks, seeking the safety of government debt, and then changed their minds. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 4.01 percent from late Monday’s 3.98 percent.

Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist for Standard & Poor’s Equity Research, said investors may be wondering if the market has sold off too much even in the face of a litany of bad economic news. “Maybe it’s just at this kind of a juncture that everything looks so bad, who’s left to sell?”

The market may also have gotten a technical kick upward, when the S&P 500 fell to 1,260.68, its lowest point since July 2006. When the index, the one most closely followed by market professionals, falls to a target level set by traders, buyers tend to come back to stocks. Volume was light, and that also likely contributed to the price swings.

The toll higher energy prices is taking on the economy was evident in the ISM report. The purchasing managers’ trade group said manufacturing unexpectedly grew in June, but a closer look at the report showed that the prices companies paid for fuel and materials continued to grow as demand shrank. The overall gain came on higher exports, and, taken as a whole, the ISM report turned out to be a disappointment.

Investors were also disappointed by another drop in construction spending due to the continuing slump in housing. The Commerce Department said construction spending fell 0.4 percent, slightly less than economists’ forecasts.

But GM’s sound beating of Toyota to retain its traditional U.S. sales lead was reassuring to a market starved for good news, and that lifted stocks off their lows and gave them a modest gain.

Still, the market is nervous about what’s to come when companies start issuing earnings and outlooks in the coming weeks. It is widely expected that those results will reflect the impact of higher oil, and the fact that crude continues to climb is pointing to even more economic troubles in the coming months.

During the spring, the market had hopes for a better second half. But oil and the continuing stream of credit-related problems at financial companies erased those hopes during June, a month that wiped out more than 10 percent of the Dow’s value.

“It feels like we continue to stretch and stretch until something snaps, and that will continue to happen until we do something about oil,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank. “This is a test of wills between oil and stocks, and hopefully we’re not on some kind of collision course.”

Investors might get some more direction in upcoming economic reports like Thursday’s June employment numbers.

Ford fell 10 cents to $4.71, and hit a miltiyear low of $4.41 during the session, after the automaker reported that sales declined by a weaker-than-expected 28 percent in June. However, GM rose 25 cents to $11.75 after it reported sales rose well above expectations.

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. shares rose $1.15, or 5.8 percent, to $20.96 after a steep decline on Monday. The nation’s fourth-largest investment bank had been the target of rumors that it might sell itself to Britain’s Barclays PLC at a discount price.

Declining issues led advancers by just under 2 to 1 margin on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to a light 1.64 billion shares.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies added 1.93, or 0.28 percent, to 691.59.