Wall Street Heads Back Toward Highs Despite Dour Jobs Report

(Associated Press) U.S. stocks are ticking higher and heading back toward record highs on Friday, despite discouraging data detailing how much damage the deepening pandemic is doing to the job market.

The much weaker-than-expected jobs report may perversely have been bad enough to help kick Congress out of its paralysis and deliver more support for the economy. Hopes also remain deeply rooted on Wall Street that one or more coronavirus vaccines are coming to rescue the global economy next year.

The S&P 500 was 0.7% higher in late morning trading, putting it on pace to erase its slight loss from the day before and return to a record. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 160 points, or 0.5%, at 30,130, as of 11:29 a.m. Eastern time, and the Nasdaq composite was 0.5% higher.

The initial reaction in financial markets to November’s disappointing jobs report was to fall. Treasury yields sank, and U.S. stock futures wobbled after the data showed employers added just 245,000 jobs last month, half of what economists were expecting. It marked a sharp step down from October’s gain of 610,000 and was the fifth straight month of slowing growth.

Economists called the numbers disappointing and evidence that the worsening pandemic will likely destroy more jobs and income for the economy in the coming months, which are shaping up to be a bleak winter.

But markets quickly firmed amid hopes that the dour data could spur some action from Congress, which has dithered for months after much of its last round of financial support for the economy expired during the summer.

“Overall, today’s report is beckoning lawmakers to act on additional fiscal stimulus measures in order to bridge the output gap in the economy until a vaccine is deployed, and the longer they hold out the wider the gap may become,” said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist for Allianz Investment Management.

Democrats and Republicans have been making on-and-off progress on talks for another round of support for the economy, including aid for laid-off workers and industries hit hard by the pandemic. Momentum has seemed to swing back to “on” this week after Democrats signaled willingness to accept a smaller package than they were earlier demanding.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke on the phone about a possible deal on Thursday, and lawmakers from both parties have been voicing support for a bipartisan deal. The glimmers of progress follow months of cajoling and pleading by economists and investors, who say such aid is essential. Many obstacles remain, though.

The hope in markets is that financial support from Washington could help carry the economy through a dark winter. Surging coronavirus counts, hospitalizations and deaths are pushing governments around the world to bring back varying degrees of restrictions on businesses. They’re also scaring consumers away from stores, restaurants and other normal economic activity.

Hopefully, the economy will be able to stand more on its next year after one or more COVID-19 vaccines help start a slow return to more normal conditions.

Such hopes have helped stocks muscle higher since early November, though the momentum has slowed a bit recently as the pandemic accelerates at a troubling rate. The S&P 500 is on pace to close this week with a 1.5% gain, following up on November’s 10.8% surge.

Stocks that would benefit most from a reopening, healing economy have been clawing back some of their steep plummets from earlier in the year, such as airlines and other travel-related companies.

Stocks of smaller companies have also recently helped lead the market after earlier lagging. The Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks was up 1.6% in Friday trading, more than double the gain for the big stocks in the S&P 500.

Stocks of energy companies were some of Friday’s best performers, as oil prices climb further out of the hole they plunged into during the spring following a collapse in demand. Diamondback Energy rose 10.3%, and Occidental Petroleum gained 9.5% for two of the biggest gains in the S&P 500. Both stocks remain down by about 50% for the year, though.